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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Response to an investigation by the Office for Environmental Protection

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: waste, water
A view of the River Lune near Lancaster on a sunny day, with green fields and wooded slopes.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has announced that it has served Defra, the Environment Agency and Ofwat with an Information Notice with regards to their investigation into the regulation of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) – also known as ‘storm overflows’.

A Defra spokesperson said: 

The volume of sewage discharged is completely unacceptable. That is why we are the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it, driving forward more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement - and it’s why we are introducing a legally binding target to reduce storm overflows.

While we do not agree with the OEP’s initial interpretations, which cover points of law spanning over two decades, we will continue to work constructively with the OEP on this issue.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said:

We welcome this investigation from the Office for Environmental Protection and we share their ambition to drive improvements in water quality.

We will always take action against companies that do not follow the rules or those that are deliberately obstructive. We have secured fines of over £150 million and are conducting our largest ever criminal investigation into potential permit non-compliance at sewage treatment works.

Defra and the Environment Agency will formally respond to the Information Notice in due course.

The government is taking comprehensive action to tackle storm overflows through its Plan for Water which sets out more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement.

Further information on what storm overflows are and what the government is doing about them can also be found in our previous blog.

More investment

  • We have asked all water companies to provide actions plans for every storm overflow in England which we will publish shortly.
  • As part of the Plan for Water, over £2.2 billion of new, accelerated investment will be directed into vital infrastructure to improve water quality and secure future supplies, with £1.7bn of this being used to tackle storm overflows.
  • This is on top of our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan which sets stringent targets to protect people and the environment and will require the largest infrastructure programme in water company history - £56 billion capital investment.

Stronger regulation

  • We have set stringent targets for water companies to reduce storm overflows – driving the largest infrastructure programme in water company history of £56 billion over 25 years. This includes front-loading action in particularly important and sensitive sites, including bathing waters.
  • We are driving up monitoring and transparency so the public can see what is going on – we have increased the number of storm overflows monitored across the network from 7% in 2010, to 91% now, and with 100% expected by the end of the year.
  • We have given Ofwat new powers to toughen up rules on dividends so that people’s bills never reward environmental damage.
  • We have trebled funding for Ofwat’s enforcement capacity to hold water companies to account.

Tougher enforcement

  • We are holding water companies to account on a scale never seen before. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 59 prosecutions, securing record fines of over £150 million against water companies. The Environment Agency has also launched the largest criminal investigation into unpermitted water company sewage discharges ever at over 2,200 treatment works.
  • We are scrapping the cap on civil penalties and significantly broadening their scope to target a much wider range of offences. This is toughening our enforcement tools and expanding where regulators can use them. This will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits.

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  1. Comment by Michael Hughes posted on

    Are we supposed to applaud Defra for this tougher policy rather than ask the more critical question: why has it taken you decades to act and do your job? Water authorities have got away with environmental vandalism for decades. You should be ashamed, not looking for praise.

  2. Comment by Iain Murray posted on

    Holding the Water Companies to account is only part of the solution. Governments must not sweep growing populations under the carpet.
    More humans mean more consumption of what are now becoming scarce resources - clean water, safe food, raw materials etc, not just more pollution. It also means less biodiversity as humans exert massive pressure on ecosystems.
    Could the government please start talking about sustainable population sizes here, in Europe and Worldwide?
    Some things we just cannot innovate our way out of, there is only one planet and a finite amount of land and water resources!

  3. Comment by John W. Baxter posted on

    On a fine sunny day in the Lune valley it is hardly acceptable for the British public to accept that a storm overflow/ combined sewer overflow…..whatever jargon one chooses to use….is discharging to river, the reason being that the waste water treatment works that has lacked adequate upgrades over decades to cope with modern living is under capacity ,the pumps at the wet well are under capacity, is out of order, unattended by inadequate numbers of full time staff ,the discharge quality is untelemetered and the only time it comes to the notice of the authorities who monitor the wellbeing of our waterways is because a member of the public who cares about the environment around them went to the trouble of reporting it to whoever…..very quaint!.

  4. Comment by CHRISTINA AITKEN posted on

    Glad to read Defra are doing what they should be doing and sorting out the water companies. I hope my own water company SES is being checked too as I confirm they never do as they say they will for sure.