There has understandably been much local concern about sewage discharges from Combined Sewer Overflows. Storm overflows were designed for extreme weather to prevent sewers from becoming overloaded with a combination of sewage and rainwater, releasing diluted wastewater into rivers rather than letting it back up in homes. Water infrastructure has not kept pace over decades with population growth and with new housing development, and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) often still date from the Victorian era.
In 2020, I supported my Conservative colleague, Philip Dunne MP’s private members bill, the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, which was an earlier attempt to tackle this problem, and I have held regular meetings with the Chief Executive of the Pennon Group, which owns South West Water, the last just a few weeks ago, to press for improvements.
In November 2021, the Government, having established the Storm Overflows Task Force, published the first ever report on storm overflow spills. The report estimated that the complete elimination of sewage discharges, requiring the separation of the currently, largely Victorian, combined wastewater and stormwater systems, would cost between £350 billion and £600 billion; much of this cost would inevitably be transferred to the customer.
No-one has proposed, therefore, that the water companies can viably be required to eliminate storm discharges immediately, or even within the next few years, or that they yet have the data or capacity to do so. Independent organisations such as the Rivers Trust have not called for it and the Labour attempted amendment to the Environment Bill, which has received much misleading publicity, did not propose that, but rather the progressive and compulsory reduction of discharges. That is the approach the Government had chosen in the Environment Act.
The Act for the first time places a duty on water companies to secure a progressive overall reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from storm overflows. The Government’s Strategic Policy Statement for OFWAT, published in February 2022, outlines that it expects OFWAT to ensure that water companies invest significantly in reducing the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows, and its “Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan”, published just a few weeks ago, contains binding targets for discharge reductions.
The Act also includes measures to put in place an accountable and transparent monitoring regime. Water companies and the Environment Agency must publish annual data on storm overflow operation and, also, near real time information (within 1 hour) of the commencement of an overflow, its location and when it ceases. They must continually monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow or a sewage disposal works.
They must also produce Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans, reporting on the capacity of their networks, environmental risks of their assets and long-term planning of their networks over a minimum of 25 years. The Government will have power of veto over these plans.
This comprehensive approach has implemented the Government’s priority that water companies should reduce storm overflows dramatically over the next few years. It will also allow us to gather the data required to develop the practical long-term plan necessary to eliminate all harmful discharges.