Sewage legislation leads to a storm of opposition

Storm overflows to be fitted with monitoring devices by end of 2023 as water companies to be held to account
11 May 2023 , Steve Smethurst

Clean water campaigners maintain that targets are inadequate and current timelines will allow pollution to continue until 2050, putting global habitats under threat

The government has announced that its target to reduce the amount of sewage in storm overflows will be enshrined in law. This means all such overflows will be fitted with monitors by the end of the year and water companies will need to provide an action plan for each one by the summer.

The announcement coincided with Anglian Water being fined £2.65 million by the Environment Agency (EA) for allowing untreated sewage at the Jaywick Water Recycling Centre in Essex to overflow into the North Sea in 2018.

The government had earlier rejected Shadow Environment Secretary Jim McMahon’s bid to force through legislation that would impose automatic fines on water companies dumping waste in rivers and seas.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said: “I have been unequivocal on this issue. Water companies need to clean up their act – and they need to cover the costs.

“I am using the full force of my powers to make sure that we stop the damage caused by storm overflows as quickly as possible.

“The hard truth is that however much we all want to see this fixed immediately, the scale and complexity means there is no way that we can stop pollution overnight. To suggest otherwise is dishonest.”

Lila Thompson, Chief Executive of industry body, British Water said its members were “ready to support the government”. She said: “A range of technologies and solutions are available and we look forward to working with the industry to help clarify the pipeline of projects and ensure a collaborative approach that delivers for future generations.”

A spokesperson for Water UK, a membership body representing the UK water industry, said: “Every water company is firmly of the view that urgent action is needed to tackle the harm caused by storm overflows. More than £56 billion will be invested by water companies in the largest ever infrastructure programme the industry has ever seen to improve overflows and tackle spills.”

“This will allow polluters to keep on polluting right up until 2050. All that’s happened is the government has dressed up an old announcement to grab a headline.”

However, this didn’t satisfy clean-water campaigners. Henry Swithinbank, Policy and Research Manager at Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), described the targets as ‘woefully inadequate’, saying: “This will allow polluters to keep on polluting right up until 2050. All that’s happened is the government has dressed up an old announcement to grab a headline.”

Clean-water campaigner Feargal Sharkey went further, saying: “What the government has done is legalise profiteering by water companies. It’s another ‘Get out of jail free’ card that will come at bill payers' expense.”

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link welcomed legally binding targets to cut sewage pollution, but agreed that it would allow sewage to pour into sensitive wildlife sites for ‘another 20 years or more’.

He said: “That’s terrible for globally important habitats like England’s chalk streams and for vulnerable wildlife. The targets must be much faster, in line with the commitment to halt the decline of nature by 2030.”

Benwell added that sewage pollution is just one cause of the ‘dire state’ of our rivers. He said: “We need simultaneous action on agricultural reform, chemicals management, and sewage solutions, underpinned by a strong legal target to improve the overall health of our freshwaters."

Image credit: Shutterstock

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