UK Government proposes £56bn investment plan to stop sewage discharges to water companies
Following reports of increased sewage discharges in rivers and beaches across the UK this summer, the Government has set out plans requiring water companies to invest £56bn through to 2050 to reduce the practice.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has today (26 August) published a Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan and opened consultations on the key measures included.
Included in the plan is a requirement for all water companies to significantly reduce – and improve the quality of – all storm overflows discharging into or near designated bathing water by 2035. Environment Agency data for 2021 states that untreated sewage was discharged into coastal bathing waters across England for a total of 160,000 hours, in 25,000 separate discharge incidents.
Water companies would also need to improve three-quarters of the overflows discharging into nature sites classed as high-priority by 2035. Companies would then need to address all other overflows by 2050 regardless of location. The idea of ending the practice entirely is considered, but Defra ultimately concludes that they will still be allowed when there is heavy rainfall and no risk of immediate, negative impacts on the environment.
“Overflows that are causing the most harm will be addressed first to make the biggest difference as quickly as possible, and water companies will be expected to consider nature-based solutions in their planning,” Defra has stated.
To enable the tracking of progress, the Plan sets out a commitment for all overflows to have working monitors installed by the end of 2023. The Liberal Democrats claimed this week they have evidence that sewage monitors installed by water companies did not work 90% of the time in 2021. Companies will be required to publish discharge information in near real-time under the Plan.
Overall, the plan states, water companies will collectively need to invest £56bn in monitoring, infrastructure, process changes and skills needed to reduce sewage pollution through to 2050. MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have stated this is significant, as it will require the sector to double the average annual level of investment it has made since 1989. This is when the water sector was privatised.
The Plan stipulates that water firms must not pass these costs on to customers at a rate of more than £1 extra per month, for domestic customers, for the first five years of implementation. This will cover 2025 to 2030.
Rights, regulations and governance
The Plan goes on to propose several changes to the rights of water firms, how the sector should be regulated, and what governance mechanisms companies should bring in.
On the former, the Plan explores the possibility of removing mechanisms which give property developers the automatic right to connect to sewer networks. Water firms have long argued that this automatic right can result in sewer networks becoming overwhelmed, making the need to trigger storm overflows more likely. Should this change be implemented, a new ‘approving body’ would need to be created or appointed to oversee applications from developers.
Paired with this proposal is the possibility of subjecting developers to new standards for sustainable drainage systems. Additionally proposed are new rights for water companies to repair defective drains on private property.
On governance, the Plan proposes measures to ensure that water companies’ environmental performance is more closely tied to dividend payments. Much ire has been directed at water companies this summer for increasing profits and executive pay with little done by some to improve leaks and reduce storm overflows.
“The government supports Ofwat’s recent proposals which would provide extra powers for enforcement action against companies that don’t link dividend payments to their environmental performance, or who failed to be transparent about their dividend pay-outs,” Defra has stated.
Tough or toothless?
Defra has called the Plan’s targets the “toughest ever” in this space. But not everyone is convinced.
The Lib Dems’ environment spokesperson Tim Farron called the targets “flimsy” and claimed that the timelines were unambitious, not reflecting the need to improve bathing water quality in the near term.
Farron said: “This government plan is a licence to pump sewage on to our beaches and in our treasured rivers and lakes.
“This is a cruel joke. The government is going to hike water bills to pay for cleaning up the mess made by water companies. The same companies who awarded their executives multimillion-pound bonuses this year and paid out over £1bn to their shareholders. Whilst they roll in the cash, we swim in sewage. The whole thing stinks.”
Labour’s Jim McMahon, the Shadow Environment Secretary, said the document is “neither a plan, nor does it eliminate sewage dumping into our natural environment”. Like Farron, he called for more immediate action.
McMahon said: “Under the Government’s weak improvement ‘target’, based on last year’s data we’d face another 4.8m sewage spill events in our country between now and 2035.”
Elsewhere, there has been confusion about whether the Plan contains loopholes for overflows in some areas. The Marine Conservation Society’s water quality policy and advocacy manager Rachel Wyatt said: “Defra can’t provide a list to us of the storm overflows which aren’t going to included [in the targets] – which is ridiculous in itself – so these overflows could be discharging into marine protected areas, shellfish waters or other beaches which are not designated as bathing waters.”
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