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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:51 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:51 pm, 7th July 2022

I do not agree with that. I also believe it is good that international sovereign wealth funds want to invest in our regulated utility sector, but it has to be a regulated sector that cracks the whip when it needs to—that is, when those companies do not do what they are required to.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked the House to take note of the impacts of current sewage disposal rates in UK rivers, and further noted the responsibility of water companies to alleviate these impacts. There are two main types of sewage discharges into the water environment by water companies: treated and untreated. Discharges of treated wastewater into our waterways are one of the most significant pressures on the water environment. Treated sewage is the biggest source of phosphorus within the water environment, and excess phosphorus is the most common reason a water body fails to meet good status. Water companies are required to reduce phosphorus loads into the water environment from treated sewage by 50% by 2027. We have recently consulted on a proposal for an Environment Act target to deliver even more progress and deliver an 80% reduction by 2037.

However, it is the untreated discharges that are understandably generating the most public interest. Discharges from storm overflows not only impact the ecology of the receiving water body but can also impact public health where water bodies are used for recreational activities. We have been clear that the current use of overflows is completely unacceptable. They were only ever meant to be an emergency measure but now they are seemingly part of doing business; anecdotally, it seems that only centimetres of rain can trigger them, and that is simply not good enough. We have made it crystal clear to water companies that they must massively reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority. If we do not see the change we expect, we will not hesitate to take further action.