Ofwat: Strategic Priorities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 9th June 2022.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:26 pm, 9th June 2022

Of course, we are hoping not that sewage discharges will be reduced by one hour, but that they will be reduced pretty much all the time, unless there is an absolute emergency. That is what the storm sewage overflows are there for and that is why they were put in in Victorian times, but they are simply not fit for purpose. That has come to light particularly through the investigation that the EA instigated, which is how we discovered lots of water companies putting up their hands and saying, “Actually, ooh, we’re not adhering to our permits.” We are now on their case, as are the EA and Ofwat the regulator, as a result of that detailed investigation. Certainly, there is a whole raft of measures that will tackle that.

Water companies also need to play their part in reducing nutrient pollution in rivers, which was mentioned by a few colleagues. Through our landmark Environment Act, we propose to set a legally binding target to reduce phosphorous loadings from waste water by 80% by 2030 against the 2020 baseline.[This section has been corrected on 15 June 2022, column 4MC — read correction] That target will provide a legal driver to require water companies to further reduce phosphorous in the water environment, which will protect rivers and our precious habitats. We are also supporting farmers to reduce the nutrient pollution from agriculture.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow mentioned that all of our policies in DEFRA and, I would say, even more widely across Government—for example, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities forms part of this through its housing policies—need to link up. However, I believe they do, because there are measures in our environmental land management scheme and our flooding policy statement that all link to the water landscape, as they need to do.

We have almost doubled our funding for the catchment-sensitive farming programme, which provides farmers with advice on how to reduce pollution. We have increased that budget to £30 million from £16.6 million, and that will cover 100% of England’s farmland, up from 40% of its current coverage, with more catchment-sensitive farming officers.

We must recognise that the water environment faces many other pressures. I was pleased that Luke Pollard widened the debate, which is so important. Yes, we have worked very closely together, and I acknowledge that he, with an understanding of the whole landscape, has been supportive of many of these measures. Climate change and a growing population, especially in dryer parts of the country, are increasing constraints on our water supply. The Government have been clear in our statement to Ofwat that water companies and Ofwat must take a long-term and strategic view of the challenges ahead. Meeting our future needs must not come at the expense of the natural environment, and that includes reducing unsustainable water extraction from chalk streams and aquifers.

We will need a twin-track approach to secure resilient water resources. On the one hand, water companies will need to invest in new supply infrastructure where it is needed, and on the other, we will need to reduce demand for water, use water more efficiently and reduce leaks. We will actually need to secure an additional 4 billion litres of water a day by 2050, and half of that will need to come from reducing demand, as the hon. Member mentioned. By 2050, we expect to see leakage halved, because that is a big part of this, and to see average daily consumption at 110 litres per person, which is actually 30 litres less on average than we are each currently using.

My hon. Friend David Johnston mentioned a potential reservoir. I will not comment on that particular reservoir, but we will need—and we are putting in place—a whole raft of such measures. We will need new infrastructure, including new reservoirs to reduce leaks, and to use less water overall. Through the Environment Act, we propose to set a legally binding target on the Government to reduce use of the public water supply in England per head of population by 20% by 2037. This will be supported by mandatory water efficiency labelling and building regulations, and water companies must play their part in helping us to achieve that target.

Delivering on these ambitions does not come without costs, and my hon. Friends will be rightly concerned. A number of Members, particularly Liz Twist, have raised the effect on the cost of living and how critical this is—and she is going to intervene on me.