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

The noble Baroness may well be right. I agree that there probably needs to be a change. Just behind us, the River Thames is subject to storm overflows that we are hoping to relieve with the Thames Tideway tunnel. With just a few millimetres of rain that one could not call a storm, many other towns, cities and rivers are similarly affected. We have made it clear that the companies must massively reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh raised a number of good points. I applaud the Slowing The Flow project that she mentioned in the constituency that she used to represent. Importantly, she went on to talk about flooding. There is an easy line that campaigners and politicians use: “We should never build in flood plains”. We are in a flood plain here, in York and in most of our cities. Are we honestly saying that we should never build in those communities? We need to build flood-resistant buildings and to remember the impact that buildings can have on a creaking—sometimes Edwardian or Victorian—sewage system. That is why it is vital to link the pieces together.

We are the first Government to instruct water companies in legislation to massively reduce the use of storm overflows. Earlier this year, the Government published a new set of strategic priorities for the industry’s financial regulator, Ofwat. This set out for the first time the direction from government that water companies must take steps to

“significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows”,

and that the regulator should ensure funding should be approved for them to do so. The Government have also committed to undertake a review of the case for implementing Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010—a case close to my noble friend’s heart. Schedule 3 was designed to set standards for the construction of sustainable drainage systems on new developments, and to make any surface water drainage connections to foul sewers of those developments conditional on the approval of the sustainable drainage systems. This, therefore, can also seek to address the right to connect, which has been of concern to many colleagues here and elsewhere who have mentioned it.

A number of noble Lords mentioned wet wipes. The Storm Overflows Taskforce is considering wet wipes as a contributing factor to overflows and treatment works. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, talked about the importance of stopping wet wipes getting into our sewage system. We have a call for evidence that will explore a possible ban on all wet wipes containing plastic. We continue to encourage water companies and wet wipe manufacturers to raise concerns with the consumers and try to get this situation changed.

The review of sustainable drainage systems in planning policy and other developments towards reducing new burdens on the sewage system from surface water drainage from new developments really matter. My noble friend Lady Altmann mentioned nature-based solutions. These need to be understood. When I first raised them with Ofwat a decade ago, it did not like them because they could not be measured. There has been a sea-change and now nature-based solutions are much more palatable to the regulator and all concerned.

In addition to the actions that the Government are taking, we are setting out clear requirements on water companies to put in place the mechanisms to hold them to account for delivering reductions in the use of storm overflows. Last year, our Environment Act brought in a raft of new duties on water companies, which are now legally required to secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from storm overflows. The Act also included a duty on the Government to produce a statutory plan by September this year to reduce discharges from storm overflows and report to Parliament on progress.

On 31 March, we published a consultation on the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, which will revolutionise how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage. Water companies will face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the harm that any sewage discharge causes to the environment. This will be the largest programme to tackle storm sewage discharges in history.

In the consultation, the Government proposed several specific targets for water companies to achieve. One example that addresses some of the points raised is that, by 2035, the environmental impacts of 75% of overflows affecting our most important protected sites will have been eliminated. These are the most important protected sites; they are used for bathing and are valuable ecosystems that are deteriorating and need to be addressed. By 2035, there will be 70% fewer discharges into bathing waters.

The Government will also publish a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England. We will be very clear about the costs that this would place on consumers and their bills. Under the Environment Act, water companies are now required to produce comprehensive statutory drainage and sewerage management plans, which will set out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage systems over a minimum 25-year planning horizon. They must include how storm overflows will be addressed.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked some pertinent questions. The water industry was privatised in 1989, with the aim of attracting much-needed investment into the sector through private capital markets, rather than by relying on core government funding. Since privatisation, water companies have delivered £160 billion of investment, including £30 billion invested in the environment. This is equivalent to around £5 billion of investment annually. The privatised model continues to attract investment, and, for the period from 2020 to 2025, water companies have invested £51 billion, including over £7 billion of investment in the environment. This will reduce pollution incidents by 30% and deliver improvements to more than 12,000 kilometres of rivers.

The right reverend Prelate talked about the importance of joining up the pollution in our rivers with our farming policy, and he is absolutely right. I was in his diocese recently at the Groundswell event, which showed how farmers can weaponise their soil to protect rivers and the environment. He will be pleased to see the Government’s riparian tree-planting proposals, which will protect river systems by planting more trees on the edge of water.

My noble friend Lord Caithness was absolutely right to raise catchments; we need to think about this landscape to protect water bodies and, of course, aquifers. I am such a geek that I check the Pang Valley Flood Forum’s data whenever it rains to see the impact on my local river. I refer noble Lords to the evidence given to the EFRA Select Committee by the Government’s preferred candidate to take over the Environment Agency, Alan Lovell, who comes from a farming family and understands the impact, both beneficial and damaging, that farming can have on waterways and rivers. We hope that noble Lords will appreciate this appointment and the other work that we are doing with public bodies to make sure that this remains a priority.

The Environment Act also includes a power for the Government to direct water companies in relation to the actions in these drainage and sewerage management plans. The Act includes duties to massively improve the monitoring and transparency of the use of storm overflows. Water companies will be required to publish spill data in near real time and monitor the water quality impacts, upstream and downstream, of all storm overflows. Water companies and the Environment Agency will be required to publish summary data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.

The Government have been clear to water companies that we will not hesitate to take enforcement action if they are failing to meet their obligations. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, that the fines get unloaded not on customers but on shareholders. The noble Lord is shaking his head, but this is true: it is a rule that we have imposed.

Since 2015 the EA has brought 49 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of over £137 million. On 9 July last year, Southern Water was handed a record £90 million fine after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage which polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex. The fine has been paid solely from the company’s operating profits, rather than added to customer bills.

We are holding the industry to account on a scale never done before. Ofwat and the Environment Agency have launched the largest investigations into all water and wastewater companies in England and Wales in the light of information suggesting that water companies in England may not be complying with their permits, resulting in excess sewage spills into the environment, even in dry periods.

Before coming to this role I was on the board of River Action, which seeks to address the issues around the River Wye, and across many other rivers. These combine the problems of sewage in the rivers and phosphates from farming and make sure that we are holding relevant people to account, so I have some form on this.

In conclusion, the frequency of discharges from storm overflows is wholly unacceptable. I have set out the Government’s ambitious agenda to deliver huge reductions in the use of storm overflows for the first time ever. This includes: reviewing the case for implementing Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act; a direction from government to Ofwat in the strategic policy statement setting out that water companies must take steps to

“significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows”,

and that the regulator should ensure funding be approved for them to do so. Further measures include: statutory drainage and sewerage management plans, with powers of direction; a storm overflows discharge reduction plan, with clear, specific and ambitious targets; and statutory requirements for improved monitoring of sewage discharges.

It is time for water companies to step up and deliver on their promises. We have all set out our expectations that they must do better, as have the public. The Government recognise that healthy and well-managed waters are a cornerstone of our economy and our well-being. We are committed to collectively addressing all of these issues alongside our action on storm overflows to deliver on our pledge to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than when we inherited it.