Today (21 November) there has been media coverage of a report by Surfers Against Sewage which claims 60% of inland swimming spots that they monitored would be classified as ‘poor’ if officially designated as bathing waters. To note, it is important to be aware that the 40 sites that Surfers Against Sewage mention are not designated bathing sites, and therefore are not include in published bathing water statistics.
Substantial improvements have been made to bathing waters. In 2022, 93% of designated bathing waters met the highest standards of ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, up from just 76% in 2010 and despite stricter standards being introduced in 2015. In the early 1990s, just 28% of bathing waters met the highest standards in force at that time. These improvements have been driven by £2.5 billion of investment and facilitated partnerships.
Surfers Against Sewage’s report also looked at the number of times untreated sewage was discharged into UK waterways. The Government and the Environment Agency recognise the volume of pollution in our waters is utterly unacceptable, which is why stringent targets have been set to reduce discharges. We are also clear water companies must not profit from environmental damage and Ofwat has been given increased powers under the Environment Act 2021 to hold them account for poor performance.
Water Minister Rebecca Pow said:
We agree the volume of pollution in our waters is utterly unacceptable, and this is the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it.
Our Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to ensure every overflow is monitored, reduce all sources of pollution and hand out swifter fines and penalties.
This plan includes targets so strict they are leading to the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £60 billion over 25 years – which in turn will result in hundreds of thousands fewer sewage discharges.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said:
We share Surfers Against Sewage’s absolute commitment to improving water quality in England, and much of the data released today is available because of the significant steps we’ve taken to improve the regulation of our waterways.
Whether its tackling agricultural pollution, road run-off or sewage discharges, we know there is more to do to improve designated bathing sites and our waterways, which is why we will work with everyone - from farmers or water companies through to citizen scientists – to reduce pollution.
“We will also take action against polluters where there is evidence permits have not been complied with and we are conducting our largest ever criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at thousands of sewage treatment works.
The Plan for Water:
- 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 to cut over 10,000 discharges by 2025.
- We have set stringent targets (Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan) for water companies to reduce storm overflows – driving the largest infrastructure programme in water company history of £60 billion over 25 years. This will result in hundreds of thousands fewer sewage discharges every year by 2050.
- The Plan frontloads action in particularly important and sensitive areas including designated bathing waters. Overflows that are causing the most harm will be addressed first to make the biggest difference as quickly as possible.
- Privatisation has unlocked £215bn of capital investment, in real terms, which has delivered significant benefits. In every year since privatisation the water sector has invested more than it has paid in dividends.
- Water companies have to provide action plans for every storm overflow in England which will be published shortly.
- 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 are also scrapping the cap on civil penalties and significantly broadening their scope to target a much wider range of offences. These new powers will make it quicker and easier for regulators impose unlimited penalties in instances where the threshold for criminal prosecution has not been met. This will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits and harm our rivers, seas and precious habitats.
- Last month we launched a consultation about the banning the sale of wet wipes containing plastic.
- The government backed plans for the water regulator Ofwat to take action against water companies that pay out dividends to their shareholders despite failing to meet the required performance standards, and boosted their enforcement capacity with an additional £11 million funding increase.
- 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 creating a new Water Restoration Fund, using money from water company fines and penalties to support local environmental projects, like re-meandering rivers and restoring habitats.
- We are clear water companies must not profit from environmental damage and we have given Ofwat increased powers under the Environment Act 2021 to hold them account for poor performance.
- On dividends: Using new powers granted to Ofwat by the government, Ofwat is ensuring company dividends are linked to environmental performance.
- On bonuses for water company executives: Ofwat has outlined a new measure to ensure customer bills do not fund executive bonus payments for poor performing companies.