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UK water companies claim ‘world-leading plans’ will end sewage spills

Water pollution is one of the most visible environmental challenges to emerge post-Brexit, but the industry believes it finally has an effective roadmap.

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Published today, Tuesday 12th March, water companies in England have unveiled what they claim to be a ‘comprehensive’ proposal to deal with the issue, which has arisen from decades of maintenance neglect and low levels of investment in infrastructure upgrades.

The £10.2billion plan will fund improvements through to 2030, representing a three-fold increase in spend – the most expansive overflows programme in the world. Once complete, all of England’s 14,187 overflows would meet or exceed current regulatory standards. Ofwat now needs to approve the blueprints, which could see 150,000 sewage spills prevented, doubling the current requirements set out by Government. By 2050, 325,000 spills would be averted, and throughout the lifespan of the project it would stop over 4million spills into rivers and seas. 

In total, almost 9,000 improvements to England’s water network have been identified, and combined it is believed these steps could prevent ‘all ecological harm’. Almost two-thirds of spills at bathing areas would be stopped in the first five years of the project, and almost 50% of spills near conservation areas. In particular, it is predicted that iconic river basins including the Solway Tweed, North West river basin, Severn and Humber would see overflow spills cut by between 75 and 85%.

‘This the first plan in the world to set out such a detailed and expansive programme for upgrading overflows right across the country. In just five years, it cuts annual spills into rivers and coasts by 150,000. Our plan halves spills into the most sensitive areas, such as chalk streams, and cuts spills by nearly two-thirds into bathing areas,’ said David Henderson, Water UK Chief Executive.

‘The regulator Ofwat must now back these transformative plans. We also call on the government to deliver the ten commitments it has previously made, each of which is critical for delivering further reductions in overflows,’ he continued.

Downing Street is also being urged to deliver on its own policy commitments which could accelerate work, bringing deadlines forward. These include a review of Bathing Water Regulations 2013, an end to automatic right of housing developers to connect to overloaded sewers, assess the idea of giving water companies the right to repair defective drains on private property, banning the manufacture and sale of plastic wet wipes, and using fines effectively to improve the environment.

Assessing the role of highway drainage as a source of environmental harm, giving water companies the right to improve drainage on private property to reduce impermeable areas connected to the combined sewer network, and the right to discharge clean rainwater back into water courses are also on the the Government’s own list. As is a consultation on making water companies statutory consultees on planning applications and ending operator self monitoring. 

‘This is a very significant proposal to address a large proportion of sewage overflows which have blighted far too many of our rivers for far too long, as we have been highlighting for several years with our annual Sewage Map. It is therefore a welcome positive step forwards towards healthier rivers for wildlife and people,’ said Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Rivers Trust.
A statement from Chief Executive Mark Lloyd in response to Water UK’s plan to reduce sewage spills, as per the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan:

This is a very significant proposal to address a large proportion of sewage overflows which have blighted far too many of our rivers for far too long, as we have been highlighting for several years with our annual Sewage Map. It is therefore a welcome positive step forwards towards healthier rivers for wildlife and people.

‘It remains to be seen whether Ofwat will back this plan and Government will deliver on their commitments to realise the full impact of the investment. Many other steps are required to make a strategic difference, and Water UK are right to highlight many other policies which have been jammed in government machinery for years,’ he continued. ‘We would also like to see more widespread use of nature-based, collaborative solutions to these problems, such as wetlands and rain gardens. This would make better use of these billions of pounds because they also restore wildlife habitats and help build our resilience to drought and floods.’

More on water pollution:

Urgent improvements needed to UK bathing water forecasts

Empowering environmental action and activism through web intelligence

Sewage dumping in London increased five-fold in 2023

Image:  Sharon Waldron

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