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.