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Rivers: Sewage

Question for Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

UIN 62840, tabled on 25 October 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he expects water companies to end the routine discharge of raw sewage into English rivers.

Answered on

2 November 2021

Eliminating harm from storm overflows is a Government priority, but we know that it will involve significant change and take time to achieve. The age of our Victorian sewerage system means a complete elimination of discharges from storm overflows would be extremely challenging and require full separation of pipes across the country, alongside other additional infrastructure. Initial assessments suggest this would cost over £150 billion according to the Storm Overflows Evidence Project, commissioned by the Storm Overflows Taskforce. The full research report will be published shortly.

However, this does not mean that things cannot improve significantly. We are continuing to work with the industry to make sure that storm overflows are properly controlled and to reduce the harm caused by their discharges. This Government has been clear that the current failure of water companies to reduce adequately sewage discharges is unacceptable.

Between 2020 and 2025 water companies will invest £7.1 billion to protect and improve the environment. This includes the £5.2 billion invested through the Water Industry National Environment Programme. Of this, £3.1 billion will be invested in in storm overflow improvements.

However, we have made it crystal clear to water companies that they must take further action to significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority. Our draft Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat sets out for the first time that we expect water companies to take the steps required to "significantly reduce…. storm overflows." We have also announced that we will put that instruction on a statutory footing with a new duty on water companies to progressively reduce the impact of sewage discharges.

Our Environment Bill also includes the following new duties directly on water companies to:

  • publish statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, for the first time, setting out how they will reduce overflows, as well as detailing other improvements, and provides the power for government to direct companies if these plans are inadequate;
  • monitor water quality up and downstream of areas potentially affected by discharges;
  • publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis;
  • publish near real time information - within one hour- on the operation of storm overflows.

We will not hesitate to use our powers to hold companies to account. Earlier this year Southern Water was handed a record-breaking £90 million fine, and Thames Water was fined £4 million and £2.3 million for separate incidents.

New amendments have been tabled that place duties on the Government to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows and reduce their impact. There is also a duty to report to Parliament on progress on implementing the plan. We will also produce a report outlining further evidence regarding elimination of Storm Overflows by September 2022. We expect this to drive action to tackle this issue in a shorter timeframe.

Truly reducing harm from storm overflows will require a collaborative approach between many actors. To this end, in August 2020 I established the Storm Overflows Taskforce to bring together key stakeholders from the water industry, regulators, and environmental NGOs, with a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows. The Taskforce has already taken steps to improve monitoring and transparency and has commissioned research to gather evidence on the costs, benefits and feasibility of different options.