Sewage Disposal in Rivers and Coastal Waters - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:30 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Oates on securing this debate and on his excellent and informative introduction. I share his tribute to the work of our late noble friend Lord Chidgey.

The problems of wastewater and sewage are well known, as are a number of the remedies available, all of which cost money and are likely to cause inconvenience. My noble friend Lord Oates gave us some frightening statistics. Last week, we debated the inadequacies of the government paper on the five environmental principles. All these principles in some way or another can be applied to the problem of sewage discharge into our waterways and coastal areas.

Local authorities and water companies have a part to play, along with developers, farmers, householders and the Environment Agency. Environment Agency data indicates that the water industry is responsible for 24% of rivers not achieving good ecological status. Some 4% can be attributed to sewage spills from storm overflows. Agriculture is responsible for 36% of failures. Urban development and transport are responsible for 11%, and other sectors are culpable for the remaining 29%; this includes local and national government, and mining and quarrying.

When developers put in their planning applications for housing it should be an integral part of the application that SUDS—sustainable drainage systems—are implemented and form part of the planning application requirements. The Environment Agency must contribute but it often remains silent.

Since the 1960s, modern sewer installations have required two pipes to keep sewage and rainwater collected from homes and businesses in built-up areas separate. However, as most sewer systems are combined, this has meant that the separated rainwater pipe is still connected to the combined sewage system. There are around 100,000 kilometres of combined sewers in England. My noble friend Lady Ludford is correct that it is illegal to discharge raw sewage into waterways, but it still happens.

The automatic right for housing developers to connect surface water to the public sewer should be removed immediately. This is archaic, and surface water should never, in this day and age, be connected to foul sewers.

Every year, 11 billion wet wipes are wrongly flushed into sewers, where they congeal into fatbergs, reducing sewer capacity and increasing the likelihood of sewage discharges from storm overflows. The public have a part to play, along with the manufacturers of plastic unflushable products. Plastic in wet wipes should be banned and the labelling on these products should indicate in very large letters that they contain plastic and cannot be flushed. Currently, the labelling on flushability is very small and often consists of a tiny representation of a toilet with a line through it. One has to look very hard to find this symbol.

Water companies spend £100 million every year on finding, removing and cleaning up pollution caused by unflushables. An ambitious package of measures to reduce plastic pollution caused by unflushables is needed quickly. The noble Baronesses, Lady Altmann and Lady McIntosh, referred to this.

There is, of course, the issue of farming effluent being discharged into waterways. The well-publicised case of poultry manure being discharged into the River Wye is well known and remains totally unacceptable. There will be other, less well-publicised cases of slurry entering smaller local watercourses, causing unpleasant spells and unwanted pollution, often resulting in the death of fish and other wildlife. The farming community has its part to play in ensuring that our watercourses are clean, healthy and free from pollutants.

In many cases, the presence of nitrates and phosphates in the water has caused the Government to issue an edict that no new homes may be built until the issue of nutrients has been effectively dealt with. This is a particular concern in Somerset, where the land on the Levels is blighted by this issue. At a time when the Government are seeking to build desperately needed new homes, putting a blanket ban on housebuilding is particularly onerous for the local authorities affected, which are unable to build the homes their communities need. They lose income through the loss of the new homes bonus, at a time when budgets are stretched to their limits.

The Environment Agency grants overflow discharge permits to water companies, which should be monitored and managed. The EA can issue enforcement orders if conditions are breached. There is also the threat of Ofwat imposing financial penalties up to 10% of the turnover in a relevant year for the culprit authority. Southern Water had a hefty fine to pay as a result of its illegal discharges; the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, referred to this. Both Ofwat and the Environment Agency are clearly not using their enforcement powers to the full. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans referred to this.

The 25-year environment plan introduced in 2018 clearly set out five environmental principles, with the goal of achieving clean and plentiful water within a generation. Four years have passed since 2018. Significant steps therefore need to be taken to achieve that goal.

The Government have stipulated that water companies will invest £7.1 billion in environmental improvements between 2020 and 2025, including £3.1 billion on storm overflow improvements. This is a significant sum of money, and we are already two years into this five-year timeframe. Can the Minister say how much progress has been made and how much of the money has so far been spent on improvements?

The Storm Overflows Taskforce has been set up, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said. It produced a report in November 2021 calling for the complete separation of wastewater and stormwater systems nationally. This would allegedly cost between £350 billion and £600 billion, and would be highly disruptive and complex. Some of these costs could be met by reducing bonuses for water company CEOs and shareholders.

Separation of wastewater and surface water was proposed in the 1960s, and here we are today, with huge sums of money attached to something that should have been completed years ago. Of course, it will be highly disruptive, but so is flooding of surface water, bringing with it raw sewage into the homes of those affected. It will cost money, but that must be found.

During the passage of the Environment Bill, the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, worked tirelessly to ensure that it had sufficient measures to tackle discharges from storm overflows. Significant clauses and assurances were removed in the other place, and a new clause introducing a duty for companies to secure a progressive reduction in harms caused by discharges and giving the Secretary of State and Ofwat enforcement powers was substituted. Can the Minister say whether Ofwat has so far used any of its enforcement powers since the Environment Act passed into law?

The water industry has done much to improve chemical levels, such as cutting phosphorus from sewage treatment works by 66% between 1995 and 2020. By 2027 it will have cut that by nearly 90%. This investment cost the water companies £1 billion—that is a drop in the ocean.

Water UK, which represents all water and sewage companies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is calling for a new rivers Act. I support it. Such an Act would increase the rollout of nature-based solutions, end the automatic right to connect, and enable consumer behaviour on unflushables to change. I would also add a limit to water company CEOs’ bonuses.

The new Act would introduce a move towards a more outcomes-based approach to environmental regulation, as outlined in the White Paper Water 2050, enabling the adoption of a much longer-term approach. The Water Industry National Environment Programme is one of the sources of private sector finance in environmental improvement, totalling £5.2 billion between 2020 and 2025. This must be reformed to move away from concrete, end-of-pipe solutions targeting traces of specific chemicals, which may not be causing real problems in rivers. We instead need to see fuller assessments of river catchments which include carbon and biodiversity.

Every river should have a single investment plan backed by government and regulators, local authorities, farmers, water companies and local communities, as my noble friend Lord Stoneham said. Only then by working together will the problem be tackled. All partners need to be brought together, with funding, to work towards the same goals.

As I mentioned, the planning system has a part to play, by removing the automatic right for housing developers to connect surface water to the public sewer in lieu of more sustainable drainage systems. This should be a mandatory requirement, not something that can be ignored. No further connections of surface water to sewers should take place. Powers should be given to water and sewerage companies to remove misconnected surface water drains from the foul sewer. Only if these measures are implemented will we see an improvement in the quality of the water in our rivers, streams and coastal areas. As can be seen from comments made today, everybody is extremely worried about this issue. The law is there but it is not being implemented. It is time that this was taken seriously and that all involved played their part. This includes the vastly overpaid CEOs of water companies, who should be held to account, not for the level of their profits but for the harm that they have caused.