Skip to main content

Government response to ‘Our Troubled Rivers’ documentary

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: water

The River Irwell

Last night (5 March) BBC2 aired the first of its two-part series with Paul Whitehouse – ‘Our Troubled Rivers’. It highlighted the importance of rivers for our health, wellbeing and for nature – and the pressures affecting them from water companies, farming, a growing population and a changing climate.

The piece was focused on the north of England, in particular the River Wharfe, Lake Windermere and the River Tame. It explored the current regulations and the work being carried out to hold water companies to account.

The government has taken significant action in recent years to hold water companies to account – and will continue to do so. Recent action includes:

  • Securing record fines for water companies that break the law. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has secured fines of over £142m through criminal proceedings. We are also making it easier and quicker for regulators to enforce civil penalties, with more detail due to be set out in our consultation in the spring. The Environment Secretary and Water Minister continue to meet regularly with water company chief executives from underperforming companies to make it clear that improvement actions must urgently be put in place. Funding from fines will also now be invested in schemes that benefit our natural environment.
  • Hugely increasing monitoring of discharges, from approximately 10% of storm overflows monitored in 2015 to 100% by the end of this year. This transparency is critical in addressing the issue. The EA has also asked companies to install new flow monitors on more than 2,000 wastewater treatment works. This has led to a major investigation, announced in November 2021, with the EA requesting more detailed data from all wastewater treatment works.
  • Publishing our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history - £56 billion capital investment over 25 years. Water companies are already investing £3.1 billion in storm overflow improvements between 2020 and 2025.  This includes £1.9 billion investment on the Thames Tideway Tunnel super sewer, with the rest used to undertake over 800 investigations and over 800 improvement schemes to storm overflows.
  • Demanding a clear assessment and action plan on every storm overflow from every water and sewerage company in England, prioritising those that are spilling more than a certain number of times a year, and those spilling into bathing waters and high priority nature sites.

There was a further reference in the programme to the government allegedly voting to legalise sewage discharges. That is not correct. The law has always allowed for discharges, subject to a regulated permitting system. The way our Victorian sewers are built is that wastewater and rainwater are carried in the same pipe. When it reaches a certain height, it pours into another pipe and into rivers. We believe that storm overflows are operating too frequently, which is why the government has set strict new targets in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan that will require £56 billion of investment to deliver.

There have also been claims that a European Court of Justice 2012 ruling made all storm overflow discharges illegal. That is incorrect.

The judgment related to proceedings initiated in 2003 covering a small number of sites in England – and in response to this ruling the UK undertook major works, including a vast infrastructure project in the form of the Thames Tideway tunnel, to come back into compliance on these sites. The construction of this multi-billion pound, 25km super-sewer will build capacity into the network to prevent millions of tonnes of sewage entering the Thames.

The Urban Wastewater Treatment Regulations 1994 – which this ruling was focused on – require that the UK collect and treat all wastewater but acknowledge that in practice it is not possible to collect and treat all wastewater in circumstances of an exceptional nature, such as during unusually heavy rainfall. They also recognise that the obligation is subject to a test of best technical knowledge not entailing excessive costs to protect the public from significant water bill hikes. This is due to the scale and complexity of the infrastructure; the combined sewer network stretches 2.5 times around the world with nearly 15,000 storm overflows. Upgrades means digging up roads across the country to separate pipes, using large storage tanks and extra treatment.

The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan will improve storm overflows across the country through the £56bn capital investment programme. We have brought in comprehensive monitoring, driven increased investment and tougher enforcement on water companies that breach their permits.

In summary, storm overflow discharges that were unlawful prior to the Environment Act 2021 and the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan are still unlawful. No permits have been relaxed.

More detail on the government’s plans to deliver clean and plentiful water were also set out last month in its Environmental Improvement Plan 2023, a five-year strategy for a cleaner, greener country.

Follow Defra on Twitter, and sign up for email alerts here.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by bob posted on

    In this year of 2023 we pride ourselves on being a technology advanced people capable of outstanding scientific achievements.....yet....YOU still chose to dump waste directly into our waterways. You cannot tell me that a people who are able to land a tiny satellite on a rock billions of miles away in space cannot solve this issue .
    As always it is profit above all else. The multi million rewards given to chief executives are payments for failure. They should be accountable directly.

  2. Comment by Paul PARMENTER posted on

    Liars. Stop the river pollution.

  3. Comment by Ian Dolben MBE posted on

    I worked for the EA and predecessor bodies for over 40 years in fisheries. Since 2010 the EA has suffered cut after cut ( especially when Liz Truss was at defra). Monitoring has been reduced every year, and increasing ‘operator self monitoring” - the water companies marking their own homework - has led to less and less investigation of pollution incidents. The above response from defra is exactly as I would expect - lots of self justification but little practical action.

  4. Comment by Alan Clarke posted on

    This what privatisation means to Directors at Board meetings

    1: Pay bonuses to CEOs and dividends to shareholders.

    2: Provide a public service and protect the environment.

    3. Pay bonuses to CEOs and dividends to shareholders.

    So that's a motion of 2-1 for bonuses and dividends, all those in favour..... carried unanimously.

  5. Comment by Ashley Paul Smith posted on

    Defra says £56 billion is needed to fix the hole in the infrastructure that the water industry allowed to develop while extracting £72 billion under the noses of the regulators and with the consent of Defra.
    That's the reality - the public paid once and the cost of fixing this criminal scam should fall to the shareholders and senior execs who have exploited the stupidity of privatising an essential resource and laying it at the feet of profiteering monopolies. 72 - 56 = £16 Bn They can keep that bit - for now.

  6. Comment by Hil Hart posted on

    Unless reglators are armed with proper teeth, profit-making companies will simply treat fines as acceptable losses in their business model. Nationalisation? I don't think that'd work. I remember how badly run nationalised organisations were. Not all staff in a nationalised organisation would have the welfare of the product (water) at heart. Some employees would take their pay for minimum effort. So no change there then, that's the sad reality...and how would we hold a nationalised entity to account if it failed to improve things? The government can't fine itself. No. I say we have to empower the regulators and give them well thought out reglations to enforce - make water companies take action but it has to be now. I get that installing temporary / interim infrastructure comes at increased cost but wild life is dying. We are humans, the cleverest animals on earth. In the UK we have an amazing resource of engineers. We have to find a way. Do it in conjunction with local government - more porous car parks, less concrete and tarmac so the water can seep away instead of running into drains. Stop people paving their gardens,.
    Our waterways and coastal waters are a disgusting health risk - its no longer safe to take a beach holiday in this country. there surely has to be a commitment to put a stop on water company dividends and form collaborative think tanks with local government while this gets sorted.

  7. Comment by mark cosovich posted on

    Total Eyewash, It's now finally being realised that the majority of major rivers in the U.K. are in fact Open Sewers, with millions of gallons of untreated sewage, containing all sorts of contagious bacteria flooding on to our beaches. It's taken a Fisherman to highlight this, for many years I and other fishermen have tried to bring it to the attention of others, Now you all know.

  8. Comment by Kevin McKenna posted on

    Like many people I was unaware of the extent of the problem.
    The comments from the water companies are risible. The EA who should be holding them to account have been absolutely useless and need to be held to account themselves.
    It is beyond comprehension that a problem of this magnitude has been ignored for such an embarassingly long time. The water companies must be compelled to invest. The fines payable for non compliance with the existing laws should provide a very good start if only the EA got its act together.
    It is wholly unaccceptable (not to mention disgusting) to have raw sewage pumped into rivers.
    Urgent action is needed without delay-Hopefully the programme having informed so many will act as a springboard for change

  9. Comment by Anne posted on

    Too little, too late.

  10. Comment by Janet henderson posted on

    Is DEFRA a body that expects to be taken seriously by scientists, environmentalists, public health experts? Or is it a propaganda mouthpiece for an increasingly desperate government department that has overseen the polluting of our rivers and coast with raw sewage to levels not seen previously? Government policy will undoubtedly lead to the spread of disease. There are already documented cases. Ironic that DEFRA is the body charged with preventing zoonotic disease spread.

  11. Comment by Michael Russell posted on

    You are ineffective, both as a regulator and as protector of our environment. Proof of how you have performed is to be found in every river and coastline. Farming run off, raw sewage, over extraction, no / little investment and pathetic fines. Water companies and farmers are killing our environment making massive profits. You? You do nothing.
    Well done all, give yourselves a pat on the back.

  12. Comment by B Ripley posted on

    This is, quite simply a hand-wringing, try-to-put-a-brave-face-on-our-inaction-to-date response. This is all simply because the EA (partially due to government under-funding) had dropped the ball on this.

    Fines: £142m since 2015 is less than most water company execs earn in a single year, and is an average of £20m per year. Such figures are hardly sufficient to enforce compliance.

    Increased monitoring: why is the EA (the regulator) *asking* water companies to do things? They should be being directed to do it, with severe penalties if they do not comply. I would suggest being polite is part of the reason we (ie the nation who, to add insult to injury, are paying for the privilege of having filthy rivers and beaches), are in this situation.

    Increased bills for improved infrastructure premise: water companies have paid >£70Bn dividends since privatisation, and have taken >£50Bn of loans. Seems to me the horse has bolted on reinvestment and any talk of price increases is simply because the water companies have been allowed to profiteer with impunity to date.

    While I am realistic with regard to systems of governance and the running of states (ideology aside, any properly functioning western society has to have elements of capitalism and socialism as its basis), I struggle with a basic human right such as water, being sold for profit. We have seen time and again that as soon as profit is a driver, it quickly becomes the primary, if not sole, driver. The latter has become the case with water companies and this needs to be gripped, and quickly.

  13. Comment by Vaughan Lewis posted on

    Same old tired DEFRA/EA response. The 'great EA investigation' came about not by the installation of Flow to Full Treatment meters (we will have to wait until the end of AMP 8 - 2029 for the bulk of these to be fitted) but by the brilliant and tireless work of Professor Peter Hammond. The EA is standing shamelessly on the shoulders of a campaigning giant. Ask yourself; who do you trust? A corrupted and broken water industry and weak regulators or a world renowned mathematician with a long list of peer reviewed publications? I know where my money is going.

  14. Comment by Gareth Huw Lewis posted on

    It is a huge National Disgrace . It was a huge error of judgment when the Government of the time privatised the water companies. Dangerous neo "liberal" flawed policy-I bet they would have privatised the air that we breathe if they could have done!!

    We are left with a National disgrace and are a laughing stock in the "civilised" world.Our rivers and seas matter, we are an island race and quite rightly the British people have had enough of being lied to by water companies who continue to pollute our rivers and seas.

    They must be stopped now-Ofwat and DEFRA need to do their jobs-the fines are pathetic and not worth the paper they are issued on-perhaps the executives of these water companies ought to be held personally responsible -that would put off the greedy shareholders many of whom do not even live in the UK!!!-you couldn't make it up

    Well done Paul Whitehouse, (and Fergal Sharkey) on exposing a National Scandal

  15. Comment by mike hodgkiss posted on

    You state £56 billion investment is required to stop the storm overflow situation . Requiring it is one thing , the investment actually happening is very much another . Will these companies be compelled to make this investment , if so , how ? My guess would be that the polluters will just suck up any fines issued and carry on regardless . The current government should hand their collective heads in shame at this appalling situation

  16. Comment by Andrew posted on

    Such lies. Raw sewage in the mole at Boxhill this last week. No one from the EA even interested and Pooh etc. Floating to the famous stepping stones with dogs and children unaware. A disgrace you are allowing the water companies to make huge profits with no investment.

  17. Comment by edward timberlake posted on

    Sadly the above tends to amount to excuses if not weaselly words. I was shocked at what I saw in Paul's programme, and even more shocked at the lack of action by the Environment Agency to jump on all the water companies, and their CEOs and fine and follow up aggressively all who are involved in this terrible business, and ensure that we are fully informed whenever a river is polluted, and the ACTION that immediately follows, and the individual involved. For me rivers and steams are the lifeblood of the countryside, and it is obvious that URGENT action is required to sorrtt this out. The huge profits should be tapped into or totally redirected until every river runs clean, and life survives.

  18. Comment by Sam Brown posted on

    It may have focussed on the north in this program but the south will be addressed in the next. Regardless of area, the simple fact is that NO sewage should be allowed to to be discharged into our rivers EVER, regardless of prevailing conditions. Under-investment in the water infrastructure is chronic and MUST be addessed; fining companies a few million of pounds for breaking the law will not force them to invest more when their primary concern is to provide the maximum return to their shareholders. Renationalisation is the only way to address the issue nationally and should be pursued with all haste.

  19. Comment by Rod Lee posted on

    And yet our rivers are failing? Please do wake up and get a grip on this issue. Hopefully we will have a change of government and this shameful issue will be given the attention it deserves.

  20. Comment by Neil England posted on

    Urban Waste Water Treatment Regulations 1994. ECJ made clear that allowing raw sewage to be pumped into rivers or sea, even during heavy rain, is illegal. They also made clear such actions should only ever happen in extraordinarily rare, unique circumstances. Heavy rain does not meet that criteria.
    Tell me, with hard, incontrovertible facts, that I am wrong…

  21. Comment by IAN OAKES posted on

    What a disgrace, nearly everything mentioned is stuff to do... what have you been doing until now to let it get to this? You have completely failed in your responsibilities and need to be replaced from the top down.

  22. Comment by Taylor posted on

    If the law allows untreated effluent to be discharged into our waterways, in any but extremely exceptional circumstances, then the law is wrong and needs to be updated in line with 21st Century thinking.

  23. Comment by deborah hickey posted on

    So what Exactly did the Government vote on, if it wasn't to allow the already'legal' discharge of sewage into rivers?
    That vote has been widely reported on.. What were you voting for?

  24. Comment by Christopher Gregory posted on

    Stop enabling our rivers and coastal waters to be polluted. We see can see what you’ve done.

  25. Comment by Mike Sanderson posted on

    On monitoring where is the detail of the monitoring set out? Do these details go into a public register?

  26. Comment by Mark Williams posted on

    The water companies don't care if you fine them. They just pass it on to consumers. They certainly don't pass it on to shareholders or management, whose dividends and salaries remain lucrative. And yes, you did give water companies another 15 years to continue this pollution.

  27. Comment by Adrian Scivens posted on

    Why are we still using a Victoian sewer system a century and a half after it was built? The historical lack of investment in our water and sewage systems by governments and of late private companies coupled with dubious planning decisions have poisoned our waterways to almost irreversible levels. More action and less talk is urgently required.

  28. Comment by Roy Cope posted on

    Why are there still discharges when there's been no significant rain for months?
    Britain is the most wildlife depleted country on the face of the planet.
    That's not a boast I feel proud of.
    Do you?
    For goodness sake get off your backsides and do something about it.

  29. Comment by Chris matthews posted on

    It’s not enough . I await a call from the public to stop paying our bills until it’s sorted . No dividends and immediate reduction in salary for board directors of water companies and personal liability .

  30. Comment by Daniel Collier posted on

    Rubbish and you know it

  31. Comment by Paul Jennings posted on

    The recent changes to the law have weakened the the definitions of discharges allowing more events and increasing their duration.

  32. Comment by Simon Minnican posted on

    Surely the storm overflow should be screened for wipes, sanitary products etc., as a minimum. This constant talk of the Government is doing this and that is so infuriating and only now that the public are increasingly aware of the issue. The investment should have been in place since privatisation to prevent the current situation. Where has all the public money gone? It's rhetorical so don't even bother. Shame on Defra, shame on Ofwat.

  33. Comment by Sally McDonald posted on

    The government is not doing enough to stop sewage polluting our waterways. It was Conservative policy to sell off water management to private companies who care only about profit. It's not good enough and one of the very worst of the many disasters caused by the toxic tory brexit. The Conservatives 100% own both brexit and dirty waterways and the hashtag TorySewageParty.

  34. Comment by Dominic Garnett posted on

    You've failed us for years on this and your response smells as bad as the discharges. OFWAT has been useless. Very few incidents are even investigated. £70 billion + in shareholder dividends and corporate payouts since privatisation in the early 90s. Not one new reservoir built and over 1/3 of supply still lost. New housing everywhere but no developer accountability in terms of them investing in infrastructure. Don't fob us off, act. Stop prioritising profit over wildlife and public safety. I want my daughter to be able to swim and go fishing in our rivers without getting sick. Only in a sick country is that impossible.

  35. Comment by Iona F posted on

    Constantly refusing to acknowledge a problem and producing a bullet list of other stuff you’ve done is not good comms, PR or governance.

    • Replies to Iona F>

      Comment by Jilly P posted on

      That is exactly what the EA/DEFRA have allowed Walleys Quarry/Red Industries in Newcastle, Staffordshire landfill to operate. Company repeatedly breach license conditions, EA have been given evidence of prohibited substances being dumped but allow them to continue. Air polluted with H2S gasses, including entering Royal Stoke Hospital, affecting patients and local residents. EA not fit for purpose under Useless George Eustace. Local Conservative Led Council also slow to act.

  36. Comment by Gerard Sloey posted on

    It seems like an obvious asset stripping execise.
    When water companies cansell off reservours and pump waste into rivers they know is in breach of legislation, knowingly accepting fines tht are below the profit margin then they're in in for what they can get.
    By the time this is privatised again, which it will be due to a a collapse in public opinion, there will have been £millions put into very many pockets.
    There more than a stink of sewage; follow the money.

  37. Comment by Marc Gunby posted on

    More Government spin and mealy mouthed words. I’m an angler and have seen with my own eyes the deterioration of our rivers in recent years. Private industry profit over the environment is the reality and don’t kid yourself it’s not.

  38. Comment by Richard Pipe posted on

    Under EU law it was illegal to dump sewage outside of extraordinarily rare, unique circumstances that did not include heavy rain. That was until this government voted to make it legal.
    Meanwhile, the main water and sewerage firms in England have paid dividends to shareholders of £65.9bn up to 2022 since privatisation in 1989. That money should have been invested in the sewerage system so that it is not reliant on victorian era designs which are no longer adequate to suit the ever expanding urban sprawl that decimates nature.
    Water and sewage systems need to be re-nationalised asap.

  39. Comment by David Miller posted on

    Rivers that we cannot swim in, beaches with recommended 'no swim' areas. You think this is acceptable?
    Give your head a shake , it's not...

  40. Comment by Martin posted on

    Cuf the Victorian sewers crap its been 30 years of under investment. If they were serious about improving the water infrastructure they would have had a long term upgrade plan in place since yhe 80s instead they have done the bear minimum and creamed the profits for shareholders

  41. Comment by Ziggy posted on

    You know full well that a private (water) company will do as little as possible in order to maximise profits and pay shareholders. Water should be in the public domain and ALL profits used to improve services. There are a few more houses now than Victorian times... a poor excuse for the state of the infrastructure. Get a grip.

  42. Comment by Michael Kitt posted on

    Yes let’s blame the Victorian sewers that have seen little change in well over 120 years. Our rivers and seas aren’t safe for us to swim in, aren’t safe for wildlife and are a disgrace. Exceptional circumstances seem to be “whenever it suits us”. This is on your watch so shape up and do your job properly. We are a laughing stock and you are a disgrace.

  43. Comment by Malcolm Hyde posted on

    Do the water companies have to pay the fines if so it just added to to our bills. I bet the directors/ bosses don’t pay.

  44. Comment by Andrew Entwistle posted on

    So you don't understand your own changes to the legislation? (!)

  45. Comment by Milena Bradley posted on

    We have heard this before. NOTHING NEW. Time for action. If the government had been doing THEIR job then this program would not have been necessary! AND the rivers WOULD NOT be polluted! SIMPLE

  46. Comment by John w.Baxter posted on

    Bob Whitehouse spoke with passion ,not only as a Briton, but as a lover of the waterways we cherish for numerous reasons, that our governments over the years have talked a good talk about protecting from abuse but failing to deliver for the electorate
    The storm overflow issue is a smokescreen for a lack of treatment capacity at waste water treatment works, whereby the wet wells from which combined waste water and surface run off water overflow to nearby watercourses simply because there is inadequate pump discharge capacity in the wet well, inadequate retention capacity in the wet well and insufficient treatment and retention storm tanks at waste water treatment works because consecutive governments and enforcement agencies have failed to progress with developments to enhance waste water treatment at so many U.K. waste water treatment works.
    In the drought of this past summer,one would logically have expected discharges to watercourses to have been kept to a minimum, with effluent from waste water treatment works of high quality so that the solution to pollution is dilution philosophy of our water industry could be tolerated, but no, combined sewer overflows were active, settlement of solids in waste water treatment works failed because the throughput velocity was too high, poorly maintained and managed, and the people who care were once again deceived into thinking that our best interests were paramount in terms of health and safety management by government and our monopoly privileged water companies.
    As the ladies of Ilkley pointed out, if a household had a faulty discharge from a septic system running into the Wharfe the law enforcers would be in court in short order…….not so for water companies and those responsible for their discharges to watercourses.
    A solution to some of our woes may be to empower water industry lobbyists with the tools needed to clean up our damaged waterways before they deceive us into more damage from the industry they serve.

  47. Comment by Fiona Leppard posted on

    Record fines are just a fraction of the profits these companies are making - and pointless if they just keep on doing it.
    Stop all sewage outflows NOW.
    I pay Severn Trent to pollute the Severn! I do not want my money feathering shareholders nests.
    Re-nationalise the water industry.

  48. Comment by Dean Massey posted on

    The government says what it's doing how much it's spending to curb the illegal activities of the water companies, but clearly it's not doing any where near enough. The water companies should never have been privatised as supply and waste are vital services and should not be run for profit. All monies received should be put back into the industry to build and maintain infrastructure not to line CEOs pockets with bonuses when their companies are failing to provide a service and worse still, destroying our beautiful rivers. As a keen fisherman I deplore the fact that raw sewage is legally allowed to be dumped into our rivers and on our beaches. The government should take back control of this service as soon as possible.

  49. Comment by Ian Pearce posted on

    Well it’s Obviously not enough Action
    Stop Stop Stop polluting ours rivers with any Sewage.
    END OF .

  50. Comment by Emma Bartlet posted on

    But everything you are supposedly doing is NOT working. Our rivers are utterly polluted with sewage and agricultural run-off. Everything you have tried had failed. We must renationalise our water. It's the only solution. No other country in the world has privatised their water. Wake up and smell the sewage discharge. We want our rivers clean again. We demand renationalisation.

  51. Comment by Richard Ogden posted on

    So at last you are investing money in our outdated sewage system. Why has it taken so long? In the meantime you have paid more than generous dividends and bonuses to senior executives and shareholders whilst insufficient money was put into updating !!
    I also fish the once beautiful river Wye. The deterioration of the river in the last 10 years is unbelievable due I am reliably informed to the expansion of poultry farming. The lovely ranunculus is disappearing to the detriment of both fish and birdlife.

  52. Comment by Michael Heylin OBE posted on

    Since 2010 Successive governments have reduced the GiA funding to the Environment Agency and prevented it doing its job. Government insisted on self reporting by water companies in spite of advice from stakeholders that it was the wrong path. The government can claim what it likes but those of us engaged in defending the environment know who is to blame and it isn't the water companies. Stand up David Cameron as the guilty party.

  53. Comment by Ross Cherrington posted on

    Not Good enough I am afraid, you confirmed dumping of sewage in rivers would be legal until 2030 and the Water companies have stalled all your demands for plans for a number of years. this scandal will cost the Conservatives the next election and does nothing for DEFRA's reputation