Water quality and sewage discharges: December 2023

Dear Constituent,

Thank you for your email about water quality and sewage discharges.

Following the passing of the Environment Act in 2021, and the benefits which flow from that, it was necessary to set a number of targets in critical areas such as water quality and air quality. This government is the first to set targets, have a clear plan for reducing discharges and taking stronger enforcement action.

Indeed, in 2021 when the Government announced its initial proposals I did not support the Government in a vote on the issue as I wanted it to go further in the protections proposed and I was pleased when this then occurred. The following is a summary of the steps taken in recent years:

  • The Government has set an expectation on water companies to significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows through the Strategic Policy Statement to the regulator, Ofwat. The Environment Act set this expectation in law.
  • The plan will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history - £56 billion capital investment over 25 years to tackle storm sewage discharges.
  • This government has increased the number of storm overflows monitored across the network from approximately 5% in 2016, to nearly 90% in 2021.  By the end of 2023 we will have 100% coverage. 
  • Stopping overflows immediately would lead to sewage backing up into people’s homes and streets. Complete elimination of 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. Either of these measures would result in very significantly increased bills.
  • Under the Environment Act, water companies must make information about storm overflows activity available to the public in near-real time.
  • The Environment Act placed new monitoring duties on water companies to monitor the water quality impacts up and downstream of all storm overflows and assets. This will give us a complete picture of how storm overflows are affecting the health of our waterbodies.
  • The Environment Act also set a statutory requirement for water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impact of discharges from storm overflows. Our plan sets out how water companies should achieve this.

Last year, 93 per cent of bathing waters were classified as “good” or “excellent”, which is up from 76 per cent in 2010. 

The Government has also announced recently that they are accelerating £1.6 billion of investment in reducing storm overflow discharges, upgrading wastewater treatment works and bringing in measures to improve drought resilience - £1.6 billion investment brought forward to speed up vital water infrastructure projects - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) – which will see Anglian Water accelerating its regional storm overflow reduction plan in the east of England at a cost of £27 million.

The Government have also announced that they will be removing the cap on monetary damages to be paid for environmental civil sanctions, as of the 11th December 2023 this has taken effect. Formerly, the maximum variable monetary penalty that can be imposed for a wide range of environmental offences is capped at £250,000. This was not an effective deterrent for very large operators, such as water companies, as it may have been cheaper for them to pay the penalty, or several penalties, than to solve the underlying issue. Removing the cap entirely makes the penalty unlimited, meaning that penalties can be proportionate to the degree of environmental harm and culpability and can act as a much more powerful deterrent. The Environment Agency will use the independent Sentencing Council guidelines to underpin all penalties and that these penalties are now under review. Water companies must not profit from environmental damage, and the Government have given the economic regulator Ofwat increased powers under the Environment Act 2021 to hold water companies to account for poor performance, and ensure company dividends and bonus payments are linked to environmental performance.

I know that constituents want to see more progress in tackling pollution and if operators breach regulations, our environmental regulators need the right powers to impose penalties. These new penalty changes will deter organisations from polluting and increase their incentive to comply with environmental regulations. The Government will not let companies get away with illegal activity and where breaches are found, the companies will be held to account. Furthermore, all funding from fines and penalties handed out to water companies that pollute our rivers and seas will be invested in schemes that benefit our natural environment.

I note that these changes are one element of a broader set of reforms which collectively will improve the quality of the water environment. Earlier this year, the Government published the Plan for Water, which marks a step change in how we manage our waters, for water quality and water resources. It is a blueprint for a truly national effort to meet the stretching targets we have set under the Environment Act and the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan. The Plan for Water is available here: Plan for Water: our integrated plan for delivering clean and plentiful water - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

As a result of steps taken by the Government there is more information available about discharges than has previously been the case. Water companies must make information about storm overflows activity available to the public in near-real time. This increased public awareness of storm overflow activity is one strand of the Government’s measures to ensure that water companies are held to account, that there is increased transparency and, importantly, that the quality of our waters continue to improve.

The Storms Discharge Overflow Plan has more information: Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan (publishing.service.gov.uk). This document was updated in September 2023 following consultations regarding measures that will further strengthen it. I am pleased that this plan will drive the largest infrastructure programme in water company history - £60 billion worth of capital investment over 25 years while prioritising bathing waters and areas of high ecological importance for early action.

I am further pleased that the Government and the other authorities have been tough on requiring the water companies to deliver - and holding them to account when they do not. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 59 prosecutions, securing record fines of over £150 million against water companies. The Environment Agency has also launched the largest criminal investigation into unpermitted water company sewage discharges ever at over 2,200 treatment works.

Earlier this year, I asked the Environment Secretary about these issues and details can be found here: Government sets record straight on sewage overflows and publishes Environmental Improvement Plan setting out actions to help restore nature and tackle environmental pollution | Richard Fuller

The Environmental Improvement Plan sets out the steps taken to date and those which are planned to continue dealing with this issue - Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Thank you for contacting me.