Rebecca Pow MP writes...
Untreated sewage can be devastating to human health, local biodiversity and our environment which is why we have been clear that water companies must take urgent action to address sewage discharges.
Sewage overflows have existed for over a century as a result of Victorian infrastructure. Our combined sewage system means that clean rainwater and wastewater from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens are carried in the same pipe to wastewater treatment works. Storm overflows operate as a safety valve by to stop sewage backing up into homes during heavy rainfall.
We were the first government to require water companies to start monitoring their overflows, and we expect all of them to be monitored by the end of the year, up from 10% in 2015. Monitoring these overflows can help us to hold water companies to account, and has informed record investigations and fines into illegal use. This data has already driven around £1.1 billion of water company investment, which will see 800 investigations and nearly 800 improvements to storm overflows over the next four years
I’ve spoken to our water company to ask them for an update on their monitoring programme and how many they have installed. I’ve been clear that the residents of Taunton Deane expect our water company to tackle sewage overflows now.
The Government's Record to date
- We were the first government to set duties on water companies to monitor their sewage overflows.
- No previous government set these duties, including Labour and the Lib Dem water minister in coalition (2013-2015)
- This has increased monitoring from 10% in 2015 to 90% in 2021 and 100% by the end of this year.
- Event duration monitors (EDMs) provide a robust and consistent way of monitoring how often and for how long storm overflows are used, and underpins the planning, compliance and enforcement work of the Environment Agency.
- EA permits legally oblige water companies to monitor and report EDM data on their storm overflows. We have already used this data to drive around £1.1 billion of water company investment, which will see 800 investigations and nearly 800 improvements to storm overflows over the next four years.
- The Environment Act 2021 strengthened our laws on water quality. It set a statutory requirement on water companies to record and report in real time on storm overflow operation, including frequency and duration, and monitor the water quality of discharges up and downstream of all assets.
- If needed: The Environment Act only added new duties, discharges that were unlawful prior to the act are still unlawful. No permit conditions were relaxed as a result of the act.
- There is no general requirement for event duration monitors on storm overflows in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is only required in specific circumstances like bathing waters. Welsh Water reports that 97% of overflows are monitored in Wales.
On reducing overflows faster
- Stopping sewage overflows tomorrow would lead to sewage backing up into people’s homes and streets. The Liberal Democrat policy to completely eliminate storm overflows would require either:
- The separation of all surface water and wastewater pipes, which would cost between £338 billion and £593 billion. There are around 100,000km of combined sewers in England which is enough pipework to go two and a half times around the Earth. OR
- The construction of additional storage to treat all the water, which would cost between £120 billion and £190 billion. This would require an additional 118.43 million m3 of storage, or 40,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.
- Government has introduced a review point on target timelines in 2027, so we remain as ambitious as possible, while balancing impacts on bill payers.
- Our Storm Overflows Plan balances ambition and pace with impact on consumer bills. Our Plan will see £56 billion capital investment, and an estimated £12 average increase in customer water bills between 2025 and 2030. We ruled out options adding £122 to household bills per year for the same period.
- The EA carries out 90,000 water quality sampling visits a year.
- This Government has increased the Environment Agency’s overall grant in aid funding by over 40%, and capital funding by 80%, since 2010. This includes both funding for flood risk management and environmental protection.
- The EA recently received an extra £2.2 million per year to Environment Agency for water company enforcement activity.
- The Environment Agency already has unlimited fine powers through criminal prosecution.
- Since 2015, the Environment Agency has brought 58 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of over £142 million.
- Government will consult on extending and raising the EA civil sanctions fine cap – only £250k currently - all options on the table including a fine cap of £250m. EA is already able to launch criminal prosecution against CEOs.
- Ofwat has the power to fine up to 10% of a company’s annual turnover. All fines are taken from water company profits.
- Ofwat forced companies to return £135m to customers as a result of poor water company performance against 21/22 performance commitments.
Investment since privatisation
- Since privatisation in 1989, approx. £25 billion has been invested to reduce pollution from sewage. Serious sewerage incidents fell from 500 a year to 62 in 2021.
- Leakage has reduced by a third and supply interruptions to customers decreased 5-fold.
- 70% of UK beaches are now classed as excellent and there is now 67% less phosphorus and 79% less ammonia in wastewater discharging into rivers.