Moved by The Duke of Wellington
59: Clause 79, page 71, line 9, at end insert—“(2A) A drainage and sewerage management plan must require the undertaker to implement, in conjunction with local authorities, the progressive separation of the foul water and surface water systems where possible.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is intended to secure the separation, where possible, of drainage systems from the sewerage systems through a legal obligation placed on the water companies and local authorities in order to reduce harm from untreated discharges.
My Lords, I rise to move Amendments 59 and 60, in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann and Lady Quin, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, to whom I am very grateful for their support.
These are not glamorous or intellectually stimulating amendments, such as others we debated last week, but their purpose is both high-minded and supported by the public. I cannot resist referring to a petition circulating in recent days, which already has more than 90,000 signatures, calling on the Government to place a duty on water companies not to emit sewage. I had nothing to do with the petition.
The amendments simply seek to write into an Act of Parliament a legal commitment to clean up rivers. It is surprising, shocking and indeed revolting that, in the 21st century, in a civilised and developed country, there were, according to the Environment Agency, in 2020, 400,000 discharges of sewage in England and another 100,000 in Wales; that is more than half a million discharges of sewage into rivers in England and Wales.
Since the Bill left the other place earlier this year, the Government have moved a long way, and I recognise that. First, they took over some elements of a Private Member’s Bill tabled by the right honourable Philip Dunne, Member of Parliament for Ludlow, who is also chair of the Environmental Audit Committee in the House of Commons. Clause 80 of the Bill comes from Philip Dunne’s Bill. It requires the Secretary of State to prepare a plan to reduce untreated discharges.
Since Committee, the Government have tabled further amendments: Amendments 61, 62 and 63. I thank the Minister for two meetings which the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and I had with him during the Summer Recess. I am also very grateful to the Minister in the other place, Rebecca Pow, who asked me to meet her on Teams two weeks ago, with her officials, to inform me that these amendments were to be tabled the following day. I very much welcome the amendments, particularly Amendment 63, where, for the first time, the Government are using the word “elimination” rather than just “reduction”. Amendments 61 and 62 concern very welcome increases in reporting and monitoring.
I will now explain the need for Amendment 59 to Clause 79. This seeks to separate foul water from surface water. It is surface water from heavy rainfall that often overwhelms a sewage plant, which of course is designed mainly to deal with sewage. In his letter to Peers of
I turn to Amendment 60 to Clause 80. The clause and the further amendments are still missing perhaps the most important part of Philip Dunne’s Bill, which was the duty to be placed on water companies to take all reasonable steps to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into inland waters. My Amendment 60 seeks to put that legal duty into the Bill. In addition, the amendment would require water companies to demonstrate continuous improvement and progressive reductions in the harm caused by the discharges.
Proposed subsection (2) in Amendment 60 addresses another problem. There is considerable evidence that the Environment Agency and others are not prosecuting most of the discharges, even though many are apparently illegal. It is therefore important to write into the Bill a requirement on the various bodies to exercise their powers of enforcement.
I understand that one of the reasons why the Government are reluctant to place a legal duty on the water companies to take all reasonable steps to prevent discharges is that they have been advised that this might affect the investment decisions of the water companies and put sewage treatment ahead of other possible investments. I do not find that argument at all persuasive—in fact I think it demonstrates the absolute need for the amendment and the necessity of placing a legal duty on the companies to bring to an end these damaging discharges.
That necessity is no better demonstrated than by a press release from Ofwat, the water industry regulator. It announced, on the very day when we were debating the environment in the Queen’s Speech, a new water sector investment of £2.8 billion into the green recovery. But if we read the press release further, we see that only £157 million—just over 5% of the investment—was to help to eliminate the harm caused by storm overflows. Only a legal duty would move these investments higher up the list of priorities.
I do not underestimate the cost of modernising the sewerage network, and I understand that the Government will have reservations about imposing a required investment on the water companies. However, as I said at Second Reading, it should be possible to find a formula that involves some modest grants, some long-term borrowing, reduced dividends and above-inflation increases in wastewater or sewerage charges to residential and commercial users.
I turn to subsection (2) of proposed new section 141E, to be inserted in Clause 80. In Committee I tabled an amendment on this. As the Bill is currently drafted, a discharge is not considered to be a discharge if it has been caused by electrical or mechanical failure! That strikes me as an enormous loophole, and it can only have been included at the request of the water companies. In our meeting with the Minister, we were assured that, despite the wording of that subsection, discharges as a result of electrical or mechanical failure will still need to be disclosed. I ask the Minister to repeat that assurance from the Dispatch Box. However, I then wonder why subsection (2) is necessary at all. Will the Minister not consider deleting the subsection entirely at Third Reading? It appears totally unnecessary and possibly undermines part of the purpose of Chapter 4, and Clause 80 in particular.
While the country drives towards carbon net zero and improving air and soil quality, we surely cannot allow water quality to be compromised by regular discharges of untreated sewage into the aquatic environment. The Bill aims, and government policy is, to leave the environment for future generations in a better state. I cannot believe that any Defra Minister does not want to clean up our rivers, and the only way to ensure that is to include in the Bill a legal duty to prevent discharges. Not including such a duty will inevitably lead to delays, more plans, excuses and further delays.
On my way to the House today I received, very kindly, another email from Rebecca Pow. In it she describes everything that the Government are doing, but then in the paper produced by the department there is a section of frequently asked questions. It reads:
“Why are you not placing a duty on water companies to reduce storm overflows?”,
to which the reply is this:
“The Environment Bill places a new duty on water companies to produce Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans setting out how”,
and so on. That is my point—there is yet another plan. I am sorry to say this, and I am grateful to the Minister for alerting me to everything that the department has done.
I hope not to divide the House on Amendment 59 —that of course depends on the Minister’s response—but I intend to do so on Amendment 60. I beg to move.
My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and with his permission, I shall speak to Amendment 82. I thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for moving his amendment so eloquently. I have known the noble Duke since 1982, when I was a humble adviser to the Conservatives in the European Parliament, and I am delighted to follow him today.
Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, has been unavoidably detained in Norfolk, but he is in a very privileged position and knowledgeable in this regard: following the devastating floods in East Anglia in 2020, he took up the position of independent chair of the Norfolk Strategic Flooding Alliance. I will set out his remarks at the outset and then add a few of my own.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, explained, Amendment 82 has been tabled against the background of the Government’s announcement of a review of the case to reactivate Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Had that schedule already been implemented, there would be no requirement for this amendment. As the announcement of this review was by ministerial Statement only, and does not appear in the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, argues that there is a strong case to press for a clear requirement to apply a sustainable drainage hierarchy to new surface and stormwater connections to stand part of this Bill.
The public health case and the community and personal benefits of preventing surface and storm-water entering the sewerage foul water system are considerable and obvious. Where contaminated water has entered private property, it is often weeks and months before that property can be reoccupied. Watercourses, rivers and recreational areas are compromised to the detriment of health, the economy and community enjoyment. In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, states, clearly this situation is not acceptable, but too often it has become the reality. To mitigate this negative effect, ideally Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act should be reactivated and its provisions implemented as soon as possible. Were the Minister to commit to this action, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, then agrees that Amendment 82 would not be necessary and should be withdrawn. However, in the absence of such a commitment, Amendment 82 proposes a hierarchy of sustainable drainage measures by amending Section 106B of the Water Industry Act 1991 to put such a hierarchy in place regulating a new surface and storm-water connection. This proposed new clause aims to minimise the impact of new housing development on levels of local risk and significantly reduce the likelihood of storm discharges of untreated sewage effluent into rivers and coastal waters. Moreover, housing developers would be required to design systems according to this hierarchy of drainage options that would reduce to a minimum the volume of rainwater entering combined sewerage systems. I associate myself entirely with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt.
I care so passionately about this issue because for 13 years, I was the Member of Parliament for the Vale of York. As the name suggests, the Vale of York is on the floodplains of York. Developers and successive Governments have consistently called for new houses and we are pledged to building 300,000 new houses a year. What is not generally understood is that if you build on a field or pasture that take excess water, that excess water then has nowhere to go, so it will discharge the foul sewage and wastewater into rivers, coasts and—perhaps most regrettably from the public health point of view—people’s homes. They then have to be evacuated for between three and six months.
I then became shadow Minister twice, in 2003 and 2009, and was heavily involved in what became Schedule 3 to the 2010 Act. In 2010, I had the honour to be elected by my peers in the House of Commons to chair the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. To a man and a woman, all of us supported not just the 2010 Act, on which we carried out pre-legislative scrutiny but, more pertinently for the purposes of this evening’s debate, the regulations that were then consulted on and brought forward by the Government.
The reason we are here this evening is that surface-water flooding is a comparatively recent phenomenon. It was first identified by an East Yorkshireman, Sir Michael Pitt, in the context of his Pitt review in 2007. He concluded, very simply, that the Government should end the automatic right to connect to new developments. It is inappropriate for water companies to be obliged to connect to major new developments if there is simply nowhere for that foul water—sewage—to go, other than what we saw in 2007 and numerous years thereafter: into the foul water sewers, the combined water sewers and just about every drain available. It then goes into the rivers, the coasts and—we now know—hundreds of thousands of houses. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has had experience of this in Cumbria. As shadow Minister, I had many difficult visits, as I am sure she and others will have done, to people’s homes, from which they had been displaced in this regard.
I regret to say that it was not the water companies that scuppered those amendments, as my noble friend the Duke of Wellington might portray. It was our friends—particular friends of the Conservative Party, but friends to any party in government. I regret to say that it was the developers that got to the then coalition Government and reversed the regulations—turned them on their head—which is why they were not adopted.
I have three simple requests for my noble friend this evening. We need a clear date for when the review set out in his amendments—which I welcome for the most part—will take place or be completed. We also need to know how that review will be undertaken. I am most grateful for the time that my noble friend spent with me on a call towards the end of recess and, more particularly, for the time and expertise lent by the Bill team, which does great credit to the department and the Government.
It is important to state that Schedule 3 is not just about connections to the foul sewer network, which I regret is the mistake in the amendments tabled by noble friend the Duke of Wellington, but connections to any public sewer—foul, surface water or combined. Were we to adopt Amendments 59 and 60 alone in the name of my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, we would address only part of the problem and, I would argue, make the situation worse.
I was delighted in the conversations that I had with the campaign organisation behind these amendments and a petition, Surfers Against Sewage, that it takes this point entirely and is supportive of the amendments in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, who, I am delighted, has lent her support as well.
It is important that that is not lost in the interpretation, particularly the relationship with combined sewers and the impact that increased surface water connections can have on water quality and flood risk. It is important that an analysis of the costs and benefits of Schedule 3 to local planning authorities and developers that was undertaken in 2012 and 2013, which led to Schedule 3 being shelved, should be reviewed. What has changed? Why was that shelved? I understand that the reason was the high cost to developers and local authorities. I repeat: it was not the water companies that scuppered those regulations—they wanted them in place and are completely signed up to that.
Will my noble friend clarify the timing and mechanism for such a review of Schedule 3 and give a commitment this evening that it will link up with the other provisions in the Bill and be in place at the very latest within a year? I urge my noble friend to show a degree of urgency this evening and see whether it is possible to introduce those regulations between six and nine months from the adoption of the Bill.
I also point out to my noble friend that the causal link between the right to connect and combined sewer overflows is another reason for setting out the deadline. Will the regulations be delivered in keeping with the storm overflow discharge reduction plan set out in the Bill by
As regards the ministerial standards that are required as part of Schedule 3, will my noble friend confirm that they already exist and that, as such, we do not have to spend time, or a prolonged period of development, on the assessment of new standards? The Government’s non-statutory technical standards for SUDS were recently extensively reviewed through a cross-sector Defra research project, and I welcome the results of that. The recommendations from that review are currently with Defra; it would be helpful if my noble friend would commit that they will be adopted and that the non-statutory technical standards for SUDS should become the ministerial standards.
I yield to no one in my enthusiasm for SUDS, or sustainable urban drainage systems. I take the point made by my noble friends the Duke of Wellington and Lady Altmann, that it is not just about new developments—it is also about retrofitting existing SUDS. But it is also important to recognise that the problem that has to be addressed by my noble friend this evening is which body is going to be responsible for maintaining the SUDS. Will it be the water companies which have connected because, at the moment, they have to connect, until we end the automatic right to connect? Is it the local authorities, which we know will say that they literally have no money to do so? Or should it be the developers—by making it a provision of proceeding with a development—that are held responsible? Furthermore, given that the estimated cost of fulfilling Amendments 59 and 60 would be in the region of £150 million, perhaps my noble friend will comment on how he expects that water companies in the middle of a price review period would be expected to raise that money.
I ask the House to look favourably on Amendment 82. I have also put my name to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and I wish it a fair wind. I welcome the amendments in the name of my noble friend the Minister, but I hope that, for the reasons I have given, he will accept that they do not necessarily go far enough as drafted at the moment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her support of the amendment I wish to speak to; Amendment 83, in my name, dealing with the chalk stream restoration strategy. I also place on record my thanks to the Bill team for discussions that we were able to have in connection with the extent and impact of the strategy that we are proposing. I also thank the Angling Trust for its technical support in preparing the amendment.
Throughout the passage of this Environment Bill through your Lordships’ House, noble Lords have regularly raised their concerns over the deterioration of our chalk streams through appalling neglect, to the extent that many see streams’ diverse ecosystems under severe threat to their very survival. Your Lordships are not alone. Environmental charities, not-for-profit trusts, specialist scientific bodies and even the privatised water companies have joined the call for a national strategy to restore our chalk streams. The naturalist Chris Packham for one, movingly described the deterioration of the River Itchen over time, as he walked beside the river from Eastleigh to Winchester, recalling his childhood days.
One Saturday morning this August, I was able to greet some 25 members of organisations from across the south-east of England, from Hertfordshire to the north, Kent in the east, and Dorset in the west. They were setting out on a river walk beside the Itchen, not unlike that of Chris Packham. They represented literally thousands of people, all deeply concerned about the threats to our unique chalk streams, and keenly following our proceedings in Parliament, whether it be about the River Arle, the Itchen, the Loddon in Hampshire or the Chess in Buckinghamshire, or winterbourne streams, which traditionally disappear in the summer to reappear through the chalk springs as autumn approaches—only now some of them do not.
Giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Select Committee, Mr Feargal Sharkey said, in terms, that the River Avon catchment comprises five chalk streams, with some of the rarest habitats in the country. It is designated as a special area of conservation, with some of the highest legal protection we have, and yet Wessex Water has spent close to 27,000 hours dumping sewage into five of our rarest ecosystems, home to an endangered species of salmon that finds refuge only in the Hampshire Avon.
England is home to some 85% of the world’s chalk streams—more than 250 rare and precious ecosystems—compared by some in ecological importance to the Okavango Delta in Africa or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We are responsible for protecting the 250 chalk streams and the wildlife that depends upon them. Due to their location, the future protection and improvement of chalk streams will be fundamental to any government commitment to create a sustainable economy and a future growth strategy that does not continue to degrade the natural resources on which they depend.
In moving Amendment 83, I seek to address the need for greater protection for our chalk streams. This amendment will enable the drive and commitment needed for a multiagency approach and drive the investment required. This has been clearly and eloquently set out in the catchment-based approach Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy prepared by the Chalk Streams Restoration Group and currently before the Government. The Minister is, I know, aware of the scope and scale of the multiagency group that has developed this strategy. It includes representatives from Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and rivers, wildlife and angling trusts. It includes representatives from all the water companies covering the English chalk streams. Here, we should pay tribute to Charles Rangeley-Wilson, chair of the working group and author of its report.
I am confident that the Minister will be aware that, if nothing else, the multiagency Chalk Streams Restoration Group has one overarching wish, and that is for chalk streams to be given clear, unambiguous protected status: status that will require the Government to create statutory protection and priority for chalk streams and their catchments, status that provides a distinct identity, and status that will drive investment in water resource infrastructure, water treatment and catchment-scale restoration. Current drivers, such as priority habitat status and the water framework directive, have failed to deliver enough improvement to chalk streams. Amendment 83 would overcome those shortcomings. The consultation feedback on the restoration strategy has shown overwhelmingly that there is a clear need for a status mechanism that can add impetus and drive investment across multiple policy areas, from water company price reviews through to local authority planning processes.
Should the Government find that they need further research and analysis before the recommendations of the restoration strategy report, and thus this amendment, can be adopted, interim measures could be brought forward. Defra could instruct the Environment Agency to create chalk streams as SAC or SSSI for river basin management plan purposes. Chalk streams could be associated more with conservation use and subject to more stringent common standards. Ministerial guidance on river basin management plans could well prove an appropriate vehicle in the interim.
Finally, some may question why we should prioritise chalk streams above other rivers, while others are in great need of investment, as are lakes, fens, bogs and dry habitats. Nevertheless, the global rarity of English chalk streams justifies singling out this river type among the others. A more prescient justification is the fact that chalk streams flow through highly developed urban landscapes, where their biodiversity, their cultural and heritage value, and their future is under increasing stress. The 25 environmentalists I met three Saturdays ago on the banks of the Itchen, by the Itchen Stoke watermill, circa 1720, are united in their concern for chalk streams. They represent many thousands, from towns and cities across the south-east, including Eastleigh, Winchester, Romsey and Newbury, and even Chesham and Amersham, and many more.
The proposed new clause in Amendment 83 would provide the mechanism to develop a designation for chalk streams, giving greater protection and driving greater resources and investment into their management. It would require the Government to adopt a catchment-based approach chalk stream restoration strategy, to develop an action plan and to report on progress. On numerous occasions, the Government have said in this Chamber that chalk streams are their high priority; adopting the sentiments of Amendment 83 is an opportunity to demonstrate just this.
My Lords, I rise to support very briefly the amendments moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. I was glad to be able to co-sign these amendments in a way that, I hope, will stress the cross-party nature of the support for them.
Public concern about sewage discharge is increasing daily, particularly among the public in those areas that are badly affected. Indeed, many people are astonished, because they did not imagine that raw sewage could be discharged into our rivers and seas, and certainly not on the scale that it is happening.
There are considerable problems around the country. Speaking to another amendment that I support, the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, talked about the situation affecting chalk streams. He mentioned, among others, the River Chess in Buckinghamshire. I would mention the River Lark, near Bury St Edmunds, which also has problems arising from abstraction. There are many other rivers around the country that are very precious natural resources, including my own home river, the River Coquet in Northumberland.
I know that the Minister has had meetings with the noble Duke and with many others, and I recognise the amendments that have been put forward, particularly on real-time reporting, which is extremely important. However, action is needed on a significant scale and, in dealing with this problem, costly though it is, we cannot just do a little in a lot of rivers: that would just be a sticking-plaster. We need a much more ambitious programme.
I hope, therefore, that the Government will accept the amendments, and if they do not and they are pushed to a vote, I will be very happy to support them.
My Lords, as this is the first time that I have addressed the Chamber in person since March of last year, I put on record my appreciation of the Zoom facility that made it possible for me to participate from home and thank all the staff who made it possible. It enabled me to play a small part in Committee on this Bill, but it was a limited contribution: while Zoom worked well for general debates, it was not ideal for committee work.
I am glad, therefore, in supporting Amendment 59, moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington—and indeed Amendment 60—to build on the comments made in Committee on the important issue of water pollution and quality. I thank the dozens of people who have written to us expressing their concern about this matter—it clearly touches a raw nerve.
The factors causing us in Wales to fail to meet the “good” status designation within the water framework directive are, first, agriculture-related and diffuse pollution; secondly, metal and coal mine pollution; and, thirdly, waste water, which is a water company responsibility and the subject of Amendments 59 and 60. It is worth noting, to put it in context, that in Wales the figure for pollution arising from waste water is 14%, compared with, I believe, some 50% in England.
It is only fair to note, therefore, that Dŵr Cymru—Welsh Water—has put in considerable investment in regard to this matter. For example, no less than £100 million has been spent in Llanelli alone over a five-year period. That accounts for about 50% of the streets that are potentially impacted by this problem. It has spent £100 million on addressing this very issue—and that is only one of many old industrial areas that need such investment. Welsh Water estimates that it needs between £9 billion and £14 billion over three decades to fully resolve the problem. So the scale of the challenge—to resolve these issues—requires a central government capital programme in both Wales and England.
One of the sources of difficulty in Wales in not meeting the “good” status designation within the water framework arises from phosphates, emanating from animal manures and chicken farms. That of course is addressed elsewhere in our discussion.
One matter of concern to me—I would be grateful to the Minister for his observations on this—is that within England there seems to be a target of reducing spill numbers rather than emphasising water quality as a focus. Clearly, a reduction in spill numbers will help, but it is the overall impact on water quality that really matters. Despite the valid concerns expressed in Committee and today about the situation in Wales, which can impact on England when rivers cross the border, it is worth noting that the proportion of rivers which reach “good” status in Wales is twice as high as that in England.
From the viewpoint of Dŵr Cymru—Welsh Water—two other priorities are, first, banning wet wipes which contain plastic, as mentioned in an earlier debate, and which are a major factor in blocking pipes, leading to severe pollution problems; and, secondly, reversing the trend of the continual increase in impermeable areas, which worsens the impact of CSO spills as there is nowhere else for the water to run. Incidentally, one challenge for Welsh Water is the fact that there are currently over 68,000 unregistered septic tanks in Wales. That gives your Lordships an idea of the problem. The avoidance of pollution from those tanks must also be one of the challenges to be addressed.
Some of the matters which I have highlighted are purely for Wales and must be addressed by the Welsh Government and Welsh Water. Others have a cross-border dimension relating to rivers which flow from Wales to England, and yet others are general issues which need to be addressed on a UK basis. Government amendment 128 extends to England and Wales; I would be glad if the Minister can confirm that he has the agreement of the Welsh Government on that amendment’s provisions.
I commend Amendments 59 and 60 as ones which focus on these issues and give the Government a chance to show that they are serious about them. I shall certainly support the amendment of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, if he presses it to a vote.
My Lords, the aim of the noble Duke’s amendments will be something that we all appreciate. I just wonder exactly how all this difficulty arises. Rainwater and groundwater are separate from sewage and will surely be very different in quality. While they may have some very small pollutants in them, generally speaking they are pretty wholesome.
It seems very strange to require that a water system should receive the sewerage system. Long ago, when I was at the Scottish Bar, I was instructed by a company that was then a water company in Scotland. The director of that company made it very clear to me that water and sewage were different things, and the last thing he would wish to agree to was to combine the two. Apart from anything else, the likelihood was that the groundwater and surface water would be greater in volume than the sewage. It therefore seems that the amendment that is proposed to change the system is very good, except that it would seem to require that it be done by the undertaker—which I take to be the water company. At the moment, the water company is under an obligation to accept the sewage. That must surely stop. It must be a ridiculous system that puts together two such completely different elements.
I very much support the amendment proposed in detail by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, a little while ago. We need to come out of the idea of putting these together and separate them, because the floodwater difficulties are great enough. To add sewerage responsibilities to those of flooding seems an extraordinary example of what one should not do.
I had a recent experience of having a new housing development put up beside us at my home in Scotland. Being an adjacent proprietor, I was able to take interest in the planning of that development. It is in Inverness, so noble Lords can understand that there might be some water around, particularly rainwater, but also other groundwater. It was made a planning condition of the development that the developer had to put in place a new system to take the groundwater down underground. Thus the sewerage remained in the sewer, but the groundwater and rainwater were dealt with completely separately, rather in the manner of the hierarchy in Amendment 82, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. In my respectful submission on this subject, what is required is a system as described in Amendment 59, but not a system developed by the undertaker but rather by Her Majesty’s Government under the legislation that is required to make the separation, so that the water companies deal with water and the sewerage is dealt with otherwise.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendments 59 and 60, so ably spoken to by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, whom I hope I can call my noble friend. I am grateful to the Minister and his officials for the engagement and time they have given us in discussing these important amendments. I welcome the Government’s own Amendments 61, 62 and 63. Nevertheless, I hope that the Government might go further. I also commend the work of my right honourable friend Philip Dunne, in the other place, who has done so much important work on this issue.
As we have heard, there were 400,000 sewage discharges in 2020. This is not a rare occurrence. Water companies have underinvested in sewerage infrastructure. I hope that the Government can overcome their reluctance to impose a duty on them in this Bill to act and invest urgently, as is required. Without such a statutory requirement as specified in these amendments, water companies will continue to be able to put profits and dividends above public health and protection of our precious waterways. I recognise and welcome that the Government have strengthened the duties on these companies, and the expectations to address storm overflows in the drainage and wastewater management plans that will be statutorily required by Clause 79(3)(g). But these plans will not even be consulted on until next summer, let alone be introduced or acted upon. So far, according to a very helpful briefing produced by Defra, water companies have committed just £1.1 billion to investigate and improve storm overflows. This is insufficient for the scale of the problem to be tackled.
I welcome the Storm Overflows Taskforce announced last August, which
“has agreed to set a long term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows.”
This, too, is most welcome but, so far, this involves improving monitoring and transparency rather than meaningful action to reduce sewage overflows into rivers and waterways. So far, the Environment Agency has clearly struggled to assess compliance with discharge rules and impose enforcement action or fines to galvanise noticeable action and stop or reduce these overflows.
Research on sewerage from Professor Peter Hammond and Professor Jamie Woodward of Manchester University has found clear evidence that untreated sewage or wastewater are being routinely discharged outside the conditions allowed by the Environment Agency permits. It is vital that regulation of discharges of untreated sewage and wastewater are tightened, and these amendments would assist in this regard. The Government’s plan is to set targets on reducing pollution from wastewater, agriculture and so on, but setting targets is not an active reduction of this pollutant.
I find it difficult to understand why the Minister and his department are so reluctant to put a duty now on the water companies directly to ensure they reduce and ultimately eliminate discharges of raw and partially treated sewerage into our rivers and waterways. The companies, represented by Water UK in an interesting briefing, have urged us to move focus away from end-of-pipe to look instead at the way surface water is managed, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh was commenting upon. It is true that developers are too often connecting to sewage systems that cannot cope, but this is only part of the problem, and it needs to be resolved by implementing Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Of course, sustainable drainage systems are important, and connection to a public sewer should not be automatic and needs to be conditional on official approval.
I hope the Minister can provide the reassurances sought by my noble friend the Duke of Wellington so that he will not press Amendment 59. Amendment 60 places a duty
“on sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged” and
“demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused.”
In this ground-breaking Bill, how can we not impose that type of duty? Of course, the amendment also requires the Secretary of State and director of the Environment Agency to “secure compliance.” Too often, companies have been allowed to self-report. But, so far, the Government are saying they are fully committed to producing a report on actions required to achieve total elimination so they can fully understand the costs and impacts of doing so. But Amendment 60 would accelerate action on the ground. I hope that, ultimately, the Minister might be persuaded about the merits of supporting this amendment.
My Lords, this is an interesting issue. The question, of course, is: where does the blame lie? Sewage spills happen and they are intensely damaging for humans and for ecosystems, yet we have heard some explanations that almost seem conflicting. We can argue that it is we who cause the problem because of the way that we dispose of our own waste, or that it is the fault of the water companies, which are clearly incompetent at times—I shall be supporting the noble Duke’s amendment. As I argued in the debate on the office for environmental protection, we have to penalise them for these spillages. In many cases it might be the developers’ fault for building on land they should not have built on, or it might the local authority’s fault for allowing developers to build on, for example, flood plains where they should not be building. At the moment, however, it is the water companies, and we really have to take this seriously.
I am supporting all the amendments as they all seem perfectly acceptable. The Green Party’s view is that all new developments should have a proper, sustainable drainage system so that the sorts of spillages that we are hearing about simply do not happen. However, this has clearly not been achieved and it is a big problem. I have signed the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on chalk streams. I was going to eulogise about them, but I think I was given the same briefing, as other people have covered more or less the same territory.
I thank Feargal Sharkey, who was the lead singer in a punk band, the Undertones—I am afraid I have never heard of it. He is apparently a lifelong fly-fisherman, but is now dedicating his life to chalk streams and he sent an excellent briefing. Chalk streams are very precious and special, and we do not treat them very well. If not one of our chalk streams currently achieves a good overall environmental health status, that is quite shocking; we really need to do something about it.
I was incredibly impressed by the PR machine of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. I have had dozens of emails supporting his amendment. I admire that; perhaps he could share with me exactly how he got it to work.
This is, again, clearly an issue that the Government should have put in the original Environment Bill. This is an old Bill in the sense that it was originally written in 2019. It was pathetic then and it is pathetic still. Can the Government please do a little rethinking and include this issue in the Bill?
The arguments have been very well and fulsomely made, building a consensus. Will noble Lords who still wish to speak make their speeches as short as possible and introduce some new arguments?
Indeed, I have a new point to add, which has not been made—there is no point in frowning, I say to my noble friend.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the government amendments and for his commitment to reviewing Schedule 3. That was something that I asked for in Committee and I am delighted that he is going to do it. Has he been briefed on the latest research from the University of Manchester, which has demonstrated a direct link between poor wastewater management and high levels of microplastic pollution in the United Kingdom? When we have these overflows, the microplastics go out into the water system—not only the rivers, but the sea, thus negating a whole lot of good that the Government have been trying to do in reducing microplastics. If this were not enough of a bad situation before, it is now really bad.
My noble friend’s Amendment 63 proposes including a report
“on elimination of discharges from storm overflows”.
I merely ask, what next after subsection (3)? It is good to have a report and lay it before Parliament, but what action will be taken? That is the only thing that matters now. I support these amendments, and support very strongly what my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern said: we should be aiming to separate the sewage from the wastewater. No new developments should be allowed to discharge automatically into the current sewerage system unless agreed by the water authority; there must be other alternatives.
I have one final comment for my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. If she expects a developer to make a commitment towards future expenditure on one of these systems, I am afraid she is whistling in the wind. The developers will not do so; if necessary, they would go into bankruptcy and set up a new company to avoid any liability.
My Lords, in view of the time and the Minister’s admonition, I shall be brief. I am very pleased to support the amendments in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and thank him for working so collaboratively on them. The arguments for them have been compellingly made so I will not add to them. I am also pleased to support the amendment from my noble friend Lord Chidgey on the important issue of chalk streams, and in principle support the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh.
I hope the Government will listen carefully to the arguments but if the noble Duke chooses to put Amendment 60 to the vote, he will have the support of these Benches.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 59 and 60 in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and offer our firm support should he decide to test the opinion of the House. I will also briefly talk to Amendment 82 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and to Amendment 83 proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, to which I have added my name.
We had lengthy debates on water issues in Committee so I start by thanking the Government, as other noble Lords have done, for subsequently tabling amendments to address many of the concerns that were raised. I also thank the Defra officials for their time in meeting me and my noble friend Lady Jones to go through the amendments in detail. The Minister has clearly introduced these changes but while we welcome them, we believe that in some areas they do not go far enough to address the genuine concerns raised by noble Lords. Government Amendment 61 regarding near real-time reporting states that the duration and volume of storm overflow discharges will be reported, yet the proposed amendment does not mention volume. Will the Government consider adding volume reporting into this amendment to ensure that that is a requirement?
I commend the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for his diligence and persistence in pressing his concerns in his Amendments 59 and 60. Amendment 59 covers drainage and sewerage management systems. While we welcome the new requirement that Clause 79 inserts into the Water Industry Act 1991 that enables companies to take a strategic approach to wastewater management that is clearly needed, we still believe that it should be strengthened. Amendment 59 would do this by bringing in an overarching purpose for the plans, requiring companies to deliver continuous improvement of sewage treatment plants and the separation of surface water from foul water.
I know from discussions with Defra officials that there are concerns about the huge cost of this, but I hope to hear from the Minister a commitment from the Government that this is being taken very seriously and that it will be set as a top priority for water companies and Ofwat. I also hope he will provide the noble Duke with the assurances that he has requested on this amendment.
Water UK has raised concerns about the way in which we manage surface and groundwaters as the default remains to push through these foul water systems which overloads their capacity. As this is currently out of the water sector’s remit to control, I would like to hear from the Minister whether there are any plans to review this. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, also drew attention to this.
I turn now to Amendment 60. We know that Clause 80 is designed to amend the Water Industry Act 1991. As my noble friend Lady Quin said, people are horrified to hear that sewage is still discharged into our waterways. We are disappointed that this clause is weaker and less ambitious than the original Private Member’s Bill proposed by Philip Dunne MP, who was here earlier but seems to have left. We know that existing laws are completely inadequate. The Environment Agency has also conceded that with significant pressures on its funding in recent years it has had to reduce overall monitoring and enforcement activity
“below the level we would wish”.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, drew attention to the lack of enforcement.
I remind your Lordships’ House that the Environment Agency has seen its funding cut by 60% and, according to official Environment Agency data analysed by National World, prosecutions of companies and organisations for environmental crime in England plummeted by 86% between 2000 and 2019. The number of charges also fell by 84% in that period. Does the Minister recognise that if the Government truly are serious about tackling pollution, they must fund the Environment Agency properly so that it can do the job that it was set up to do? Water companies must be made to undertake the improvements to the system needed if we are to address the current crisis in sewerage pollution. We commend the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for his informed and persuasive arguments, and support him.
Turning briefly to Amendment 82, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for her introduction. We believe that a sustainable drainage hierarchy is extremely important. The noble Baroness mentioned Cumbria; I emphasise, as someone who lives in a high flood-risk area, that the importance of this for local flood risk cannot be underestimated.
Turning finally to Amendment 83 on chalk streams, I honestly am astounded that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has not heard of the Undertones. That is quite extraordinary and possibly what I have been most shocked about during these debates. Moving to chalk streams, according to Wikipedia, which I know is not always 100% accurate, there are 210 chalk streams in the world, 160 of them in England. However, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, in his excellent introduction, it seems that this is probably a bit of an underestimate.
Today and in Committee we heard eloquently from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and others, about how urgent it is to act to save our chalk streams. I hope that the Minister has listened to his concerns on this and the other areas of real concern that we have been debating today.
Tackling storm overflows in England is a government priority, and the Government are acting decisively through this Bill. I am grateful to the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, my noble friend Lady Altmann and many others for the pressure that they have exerted on the issue of storm overflows. These new government amendments, which the Rivers Trust has welcomed as a
“significant victory for river health and ... river users” are a credit to their work.
I am pleased to bring forward government Amendments, 61, 62 and 63, to add further duties on water companies and the Government. This strengthens the package of government amendments brought forward on this issue in Committee. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, we have secured the agreement of the Welsh Government to these amendments.
Amendments 61 and 62 are designed to increase the accountability on water companies and to provide greater transparency for the public on the frequency and impact of storm overflows. Companies will be required to report on storm overflows in near real time, meaning within an hour of them occurring, in a way that is easy for the public to access and understand. They will be required to monitor continuously the water quality upstream and downstream of both storm overflows and sewage treatment works. This will give regulators and the public crucial indicators of the health of our waters, including dissolved oxygen, ammonia, temperature and pH values, and turbidity. The information obtained from these two duties, along with the annual reporting required by the amendment that I introduced in Committee, will finally require full transparency from water companies about their impact on our waters. We have made this expectation clear in our draft strategic policy statement to Ofwat. For the first time, the Government will be telling the industry’s economic regulator that we expect water companies to take steps to “significantly reduce storm overflows”. Therefore, with respect to the noble Duke, the Duke of Westminster—
I am so sorry—Westminster, Wellington. I meant the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. My apologies; it has been a long session.
With respect to the noble Duke, it is not right to say that the Government are reluctant to influence investment decisions of the water companies. That is exactly what we are doing. We will also make it clear in the guidance that we will shortly be giving to water companies regarding the preparation of their drainage and sewerage management plans. These are a statutory requirement under the Bill and we expect them to include considered actions for reducing storm overflows and their harm. I am confident that this action, driven by the Bill, is the right approach. However, as I said in Committee, if those plans are not sufficiently ambitious, the Government will not hesitate to use our direction-making power under Clause 79 to require them to take more action. This is a direct power over the water companies and, as I said, we will not hesitate to use it.
Very briefly, in response to the comments from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, he is right in what he says, but the operation of overflows during emergencies is covered separately through permits for emergency overflows or through defences under the environmental permitting regulations—so, for example, to avoid damage to human health or even human life. It is extremely rare and covers events such as asset failure.
None the less, I know that the noble Lord and many others are keen to see a road map towards the complete elimination of storm overflows, as am I and my colleagues in Defra. I want to be clear that in the government plan, we will absolutely commit to pushing as far as it is possible to go. The reality is that, as our actions to considerably reduce overflows are successful, the remaining overflows are likely to be much more challenging to resolve and may therefore involve greater costs, with marginal, slight benefits. That is why the initial assessments suggest that elimination could cost more than £150 billion, which we foresee would likely mean increased customer bills and trade-offs against other water industry priorities.
We need better evidence to be certain of that—a point made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. To this end, Amendment 63 requires the Government to investigate and map out the actions needed to eliminate storm overflows and to report to Parliament, before
In the meantime, in addition to the action I have already set out, I am pleased to confirm today that the Government will undertake a review of the case for implementing Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 in England. This schedule would set mandatory build standards for sustainable drainage schemes—or SUDS—on new developments. We agree with noble Lords and others about the importance of using SUDS to reduce rainwater going into sewers, which in turn reduces the frequency of storm overflows, as well as providing multifunctional benefits for reducing flood risk and enhancing nature. Schedule 3 would allow us to do this, but we need first to ensure that it is still fit for purpose.
Commencing in October this year, Defra officials will work closely with MHCLG, local planning authorities, developers and SUDS experts as we assess the current situation with regard to the construction of SUDS and the potential for the schedule to improve this, as well as implementation options and the benefits and costs of those options. This information will also feed into the development of the Government’s plan on storm overflows, on which we will also consult in spring next year. The Government believe that this is the appropriate and best approach towards reducing the volume of rainwater entering combined sewerage systems, which is rightly a concern of both Amendment 59 in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and Amendment 82 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt.
Regarding Amendment 82 specifically, I am grateful to the noble Lord and to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for conveying his message to us and for taking the time to meet me recently on this issue. The importance of sustainable drainage for managing surface water on new developments is made clear in planning policy. A hierarchy for the management of surface water on new developments is also included in the building regulations of 2010, and Schedule 3, once we have reviewed the case for its implementation, would make the connection of surface water to foul sewer conditional on local planning approval of the developer’s proposed SUDS. The noble Baroness asked why we need another review. I simply say that the Government have to understand the possible options, benefits and costs for implementing any policy and legislation. While there is a wide range of evidence on the issue of Schedule 3, since 2010 there have been a lot of changes in the planning systems and advancements in SUDS technology. The review will enable us to understand the current landscape and the issues properly and to make an up-to-date and informed decision on implementation.
In response to the noble Baroness’s questions on SUDS maintenance, Schedule 3 sets out that the maintenance body is a SUDS approval body as part of a local planning authority. The review will consider whether this continues to be the most appropriate and the right approach, as well as looking at other options.
Turning back briefly to the noble Duke’s Amendment 59, I can confirm that the Government’s report on eliminating storm overflows will consider the feasibility of the widespread separation of foul water and surface water systems. However, we anticipate that complete separation may require the laying of many thousands of miles of additional pipework through towns and cities right up to, and even inside, individual premises. It is the Government’s view that it is better to reduce the volume of rainwater entering foul sewers in the first place, rather than to separate the existing combined systems, and I am pleased that schemes to retrofit sustainable drainage into areas of high surface water flood risk, to prevent surface water entering the foul water system, are currently being trialled.
The Government also intend to amend the Flood Risk Management Functions Order 2010, to ensure that drainage and sewage management plans are captured as a flood risk management function. This will enable the co-operation required between companies, the Environment Agency and lead local flood authorities to ensure that retrofit schemes can be taken forward. I reiterate that I am extremely grateful to the noble Duke for his amendments. As he knows, my officials and I have scrutinised them in great detail, and I have worked hard to develop and deliver this package today. Where our amendments diverge from the noble Duke’s, it is not that we disagree with the intent but because we believe that, for practical or legal reasons, the approach is not quite the best one. So I hope that the detail I have set out reassures noble Lords that the measures in the Bill will indeed tackle storm overflows and place duties on water companies to deliver accountability and action.
Finally, turning to Amendment 83, I welcome the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, to the improvement of the UK’s chalk streams. We believe that England is home to 85% of the world’s chalk streams, which make up a globally unique ecosystem. I greatly admire and share the noble Lord’s passion to protect these precious habitats. I would like to assure him that we are taking action. We are expecting the publication of the chalk stream restoration strategy very soon, which will identify the key activities needed for the protection and improvement of chalk streams to bring them back to good ecological status. It will recommend actions for government, regulators and the water industry.
The strategy is being developed by the independent Catchment Based Approach Chalk Streams Restoration Group—I hope I have got that right, it does not sound quite right—of which Defra is proud to be a part. I am happy to confirm for the noble Lord that the Government will welcome the publication of the chalk stream restoration strategy and agree that the detailed recommendations in it should be explored. For example, one expected recommendation will be a need for the Government to consider how chalk streams are protected. The Government and their advisory bodies will take this recommendation extremely seriously once the strategy is published. The Government are committed to supporting the overall direction and ambition of the report.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions and beg that the amendment be withdrawn.
Just before my noble friend sits down, I did ask one question: what has changed since the regulations, which were to impose exactly what he intends to do, were rejected in 2012 for being too expensive? When we met, my noble friend said that the aim of the Government’s policy now was to end the automatic right to connect and make it conditional—but conditional upon what?
What has changed is the technology and the SUDS—for example, rain gardens and swales et cetera. The planning system has changed in any number of ways, as my noble friend knows from her time in the coalition Government and since. That has given rise to a need to re-evaluate and work out what the appropriate policy should be.
My Lords, I know that we are all anxious to move on. However, I must first point out quickly to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that I certainly do not have a PR machine: I was as surprised as anyone that so many emails were sent to Members of this House.
I thank all noble Lords who took part in this debate. I particularly want to thank the Minister here and the Minister in the other place for everything they have done in recent weeks to improve the Bill; they have certainly strengthened it, and many of their amendments are very welcome to many of us.
I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances on Amendment 59. I personally am happy to accept those and will seek permission to withdraw the amendment. However, on Amendment 60, I am sorry to say, despite all the Minister’s efforts, I do not believe that more plans, reporting and monitoring will do the business, and so I intend to divide the House on that amendment.
Amendment 59 withdrawn.
Clause 80: Storm overflows