There remains understandable concern about sewage discharges from Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).
These storm overflows were designed for extreme weather and to prevent sewers from becoming overloaded with a combination of sewage and rainwater, releasing diluted wastewater into rivers rather than letting it back up into homes. However, over many decades in England, the infrastructure we all rely on has not kept pace with population growth, increasing extreme weather and new housing developments. The problem exists also in smaller and much less densely populated Scotland, where under the publicly owned Scottish Water, spills have increased by at least 40% in 5 years and because only 10% of outflows are monitored by Scottish Water, compared to 80% in England, that figure is likely to underestimate the problem substantially.
As I have written before, in 2020 I co-sponsored the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill tabled by my Conservative colleague, Philip Dunne MP, which was an earlier attempt to tackle this problem. I also continue to have regular meetings with ministers and the Chief Executive of the Pennon Group, which owns South West Water, to monitor progress and press for improvements.
In an article for a local paper last November, I set out how the Government’s Environment Act enacted the toughest measures ever imposed on water companies, with new powers for OFWAT, which were designed to achieve major progressive reductions in discharges. Since then, the Government has published the new Plan for Water, which sets out details of the plans to clean up our waters and ensure a plentiful supply for the future.
Given the problem has existed for decades and that the complete replacement of the largely Victorian sewers would cost at least £350 billion, most of which would have to be transferred to customers, no party has called for water companies to eliminate storm discharges immediately, or even within the next few years. There is still not enough data available for water companies or the Environment Agency to monitor sewage overflows fully. By the end of this year, 100% of storm overflows will be fitted with monitoring devices as required by the Government.
The Plan for Water also ensures that water companies speed up improvements to the ageing infrastructure by bringing forward £1.6 billion of investment for work to start between now and 2025. This should cut around 10,000 discharges per year in the most sensitive sites. I am assured by the CEO that work will begin near Westward Ho!’s Blue Flag beach in the next few weeks.
Farmers will also be supported with a further £34 million to tackle water pollution and boost food production, with an additional £10 million for farm reservoirs and irrigation. There will be further rounds of the Slurry Infrastructure Grant later this year and next year, helping farmers improve slurry storage, as well as the use of organic nutrients on farms.
The New Plan for Water is backed by the Environment Agency. The Chairman, Alan Lovell, commented “I am also pleased to see today’s consultation on enabling the Environment Agency to levy much larger penalties for pollution alongside the criminal fines we seek in the courts. Nature must be supported, and the polluter must pay. These new measures will help us hold the water industry and others to account.”
This is a critical priority and I know the Government agrees. One of the first major decisions the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt MP, took was to make sure that money from water company fines will be ring-fenced to improve water quality. The Environment Secretary will also soon publish a six-week consultation on strengthening the Environment Agency’s ability to impose sanctions, such as by unlimited financial penalties, on water companies.
These measures are a start but unless the water companies make real and rapid progress and major investments in preventing these discharges, I and others will apply pressure for further steps to be taken to ensure they do.