Measures to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows became a legal requirement on 29 March, as part of “an ambitious agenda to build back greener from the pandemic”.
During wet weather, storm overflows act to prevent sewers becoming overloaded with a combination of sewage and rain, and thereby releasing diluted wastewater into rivers. However, their use has increased in recent years as climate change has led to greater rainfall and water infrastructure has seemingly not kept pace with population growth.
Earlier this year the Government announced it was working with Philip Dunne MP on shared ambitions to tackle high levels of sewage in UK rivers, following his own tabling of a Private Member’s Bill in 2020 to achieve this end.
The government says this ambition has now been turned into action, with the March confirmation that a number of key policies would be made law. This creates three key duties to oversee some of the changes needed to improve the water environment, namely a duty on government to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows; a duty on government to report to Parliament on progress on implementing the plan; and a duty on water companies to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
This builds on the work already underway by the Storm Overflows Taskforce, set up in September 2020 to bring together government, the water industry, regulators and environmental NGOs to accelerate progress in this area. Through the Taskforce, water companies have committed to increase the number of overflows they will improve over the next five years. This means a further 800 overflows will be investigated and nearly 800 improved between 2020 and 2025.
The government expects to consult on potential options for ways to eliminate harm from storm overflows to take forward later this year.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “This step is one of many – but an important one nonetheless – to provide greater protection for our water environment and the wildlife that relies on it.”
Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow and Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “I introduced my Private Members Bill to help tackle the scourge of sewage discharges polluting our waterways. Due to the impact of the pandemic on the Parliamentary timetable, I have been working to encourage the Government to adopt the key principles of my Bill.”
“I am delighted that the Environment Minister has honoured her pledge to seek a legislative route to give effect to the main objectives: from the Government updating Parliament on the progress it is making in reducing sewage discharges, to placing a duty on water companies to publish storm overflow data.”
“Today’s commitment by the Government means all the hard work with campaigners and colleagues in Parliament over the past year is not wasted and we shall work in the next session to find the best route to turn this into statute.”
“The Environmental Audit Committee is also holding an inquiry at present into measures to improve the water quality of our rivers, so I am also looking forward to the recommendations which emerge being able to inform the next stage of the Government’s work to improve water quality.”
As a spokesman for Water UK commented, responding to the announcement, “Storm overflows account for only around 4% of all the reasons for rivers and waterways not achieving good ecological status, so it’s essential to deal with all the other sources of harm, and all sectors involved will need to play a part in addressing this complex challenge together.”
Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of The Rivers Trust, said: “We welcome this further announcement from the government, which includes legal duties on the government and water companies. We look forward to understanding specific details on how this legislation will be introduced.”
“Delivering a plan will require contributions from the whole of society, in particular landowners, housing developers, highway constructors and homeowners, to divert clean water away from sewers. People also need to play their part by not flushing oil, sanitary products, nappies and other unflushables down drains and sewers where they cause blockages.”
“This concerted action needs to be driven by the government with legislation and funding for infrastructure and public education. We are delighted that Philip Dunne’s Private Member’s Bill, which The Rivers Trust has supported from the outset, has led to this step change.”
As Water UK pointed out, “a total of £1.1bn is being invested by water companies to improve storm overflows over the next 5 years as part of a wider £5bn programme of environmental improvements. In addition, we are playing a leading role in the Government taskforce that is looking at long-term alternatives to storm overflows.”