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More ambition needed to clean up water pollution

Ofwat is the regulator, not a cheerleader for water companies, says charity
17 February 2022 , Katie Coyne

Ambition is lacking from Westminster’s plans to make water companies stop polluting rivers and waterways, say water charities, while EAC says a ‘whole of system’ approach is needed

While welcoming the government’s strategic policy statement (SPS), which sets out what the economic regulator Ofwat is expected to do to encourage water companies to clean up their act, water charities argue that it doesn’t go far enough, lacks clarity and detail, and is not joined-up.

The Rivers Trust charity, which is also an umbrella organisation for 65 water charities, said the statement's emphasis on long-term thinking, innovation and partnership working gave “hope” that the sector will play a role in environmental protection but needed to go further.

Christine Colvin, Director for Partnerships and Communications, The Rivers Trust said this represents a “very fundamental shift” in how Ofwat regulates, and made it clear pollution, especially sewage, “will no longer be tolerated.”

However, she added: “some of the language is a concern. There is too much focus on Ofwat ‘challenging’, ‘encouraging’, and ‘pushing’ the water sector for change. Ofwat is the regulator, not a cheerleader for water companies. We need more specifics on enforceable mechanisms.”

‘The SPS suggests there will be greater transparency and sharing of data, but The Rivers Trust notes there is no clarity as to how this will be achieved practically yet.’

The Trust raised a litany of concerns. While the SPS suggests there will be greater transparency and sharing of data, which is welcomed by the trust, the charity notes there is no clarity as to how this will be achieved practically yet. It welcomed encouraging noises around including more nature-based solutions but this was still on a “where appropriate” basis, and needed to go further.

Surprisingly, the SPS does not include climate change adaptation and mitigation as an explicit, top strategic priority, and the Trust was also disappointed that the 20% biodiversity target net gain it called for in its response during the consultation period was not included.

Concerns were also raised around the “use of the markets to deliver for customers” as a key strategic strategy – the charity argued markets should be “enablers” of other priorities and not a strategic priority in itself. The trust urged the sector to go beyond the 2030 net zero targets, and for specifics around reducing storm overflows that do the most harm.

Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow said water quality is an “absolute priority” to the government.

Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) welcomed the SPS, particularly water companies being made to publish data on sewage discharges, and said it was “an important first step in the recovery of our arteries of nature”

But he added: “We must not be complacent: upgrading and making a Victorian sewerage system fit for the 21st Century will take a significant amount of work and investment.

“This effort will require a ‘whole of system’ approach: not just action being taken by water companies. Our Committee looks forward to the Government’s substantive response to our report and further guidance from the Government on the use of storm overflows by water companies.”



(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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