Investment plan

UK government proposes £56bn investment plan to stop sewage discharges to water companies

Image: Surfers against sewage

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) today (August 26) published a storm overflow reduction plan and opened consultations on the key measures included.

The plan includes a requirement for all water companies to significantly reduce – and improve the quality of – all storm overflows flowing into or near designated bathing waters by 2035. Data from the Environment Agency for 2021 indicate that untreated sewage was discharged into coastal bathing waters across England for a total of 160,000 hours, in 25,000 separate discharge incidents.

Water companies should also improve three-quarters of overflows discharging into priority natural sites by 2035. Companies should then treat all other overflows by 2050, regardless of their location. The idea of ​​ending the practice entirely is considered, but Defra ultimately concludes that it will still be allowed in the event of heavy rain and without the risk of immediate negative impacts on the environment.

“Overflows that cause the most damage will be addressed first to make the biggest difference as quickly as possible, and water companies will need to consider nature-based solutions in their planning,” Defra said.

To allow progress to be monitored, the plan sets out a commitment for all overflows to have work monitors installed by the end of 2023. The Liberal Democrats claimed this week that they have evidence that work monitors sewers installed by water companies were not working 90% of the time in 2021. Companies will be required to publish near real-time discharge information under the Plan.

Overall, the plan says water companies will collectively need to invest £56billion in the monitoring, infrastructure, process changes and skills needed to reduce waste water pollution until 2050. MPs of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said it was important because it will force the sector to double the average annual level of investment it has made since 1989. That is when the sector water has been privatized.

The plan states that water companies must not pass these costs on to customers at a rate of more than an additional £1 per month, for domestic customers, for the first five years of implementation. This will cover 2025 to 2030.

Rights, regulations and governance

The plan then proposes several changes to the rights of water companies, how the sector should be regulated, and the governance mechanisms companies should put in place.

On the first, the Plan explores the possibility of removing mechanisms that give property developers the automatic right to connect to sewer networks. Water companies have long argued that this automatic right can cause sewer systems to overflow, making the need to trigger storm overflows more likely. If this change were to be implemented, a new “approval body” would need to be created or appointed to oversee developer requests.

This proposal is accompanied by the possibility of subjecting developers to new standards for sustainable drainage systems. In addition, new rights are offered to water companies to repair faulty drains on private property.

In terms of governance, the Plan proposes measures to ensure that the environmental performance of water companies is more closely linked to dividend payments. Much anger has been directed at water companies this summer for boosting profits and executive pay, with some doing little to improve leaks and reduce storm surges.

“The Government supports recent Ofwat proposals which would give additional powers for enforcement action against companies which do not link dividend payments to their environmental performance, or which have not been transparent about their dividend payments,” Defra said.

Hard or toothless?

Defra called the Plan’s goals “toughest ever” in this space. But not everyone is convinced.

Lib Dems environmental spokesman Tim Farron called the targets “fragile” and claimed the timelines were unambitious, failing to reflect the need to improve bathing water quality in the near term.

Farron said: “This government plan is a license to pump sewage onto our beaches and into our precious rivers and lakes.

“It’s a cruel joke. The government is going to raise water bills to pay for cleaning up the mess caused by water companies. The same companies that gave their executives multi-million pound bonuses this year and have paid over £1billion to their shareholders. While they’re rolling in cash, we’re swimming in sewage. It all stinks.”

Labour’s Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said the document is ‘neither a plan nor does it eliminate the dumping of sewage into our natural environment’. Like Farron, he called for more immediate action.

McMahon said: “Under the government’s weak ‘improvement target’, based on last year’s data, we would be facing another 4.8 million sewage spill event in our country of ‘here 2035.”

Elsewhere, there has been confusion over whether the plan contains loopholes for overflows in certain areas. Rachel Wyatt, head of water quality policy and advocacy at the Marine Conservation Society, said: ‘Defra cannot provide us with a list of storm overflows that will not be included. [in the targets] – which is ridiculous in itself – so these overflows could flow into marine protected areas, shellfish waters or other beaches that are not designated as bathing waters.

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