Some recent correspondence indicates that there is some misunderstanding on my previous comments about storm overflows and sewage discharges into our rivers. As I have already clearly stated, I share the concerns of constituents that our rivers should be as clean and healthy as possible. The Government has also been clear in its determination to address the problem and has inserted a number of amendments into the Environment Bill to tackle the issue.
Concerns have been raised that section 141A, tabled by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords, was removed from Amendment 45. It was indeed removed, and for very good reason. Section 141A sought to place a new duty on sewerage undertakers in England and Wales to demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage. However, the Duke’s amendment came with no plan as to how this can be delivered and no impact assessment. In eliminating storm overflows, we are talking about transforming a system which has operated since Victorian times and where the preliminary cost of this transformation is estimated to be anywhere between £150 billion and £650 billion. To put this into perspective, £150 billion is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together, and £650 billion is well above what has been spent combatting the Coronavirus pandemic. It would be quite irresponsible to enshrine something of this magnitude in law without a delivery plan and impact assessment which were both missing.
What we did was to place a legal duty on government to publish a plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows. A separate amendment will also place a duty on government to publish a report on the ‘mechanics’ of eliminating overflows entirely. This was done last year and published in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.
What we have done is to begin the long, detailed, practical work required to understand how we can deliver on this aim. It is not about going for glamorous or headline-grabbing moves but real action to tackle the problem. In addition, what we have done is place a new duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
- A new duty on water companies to publish near real time information (within 1 hour) of the commencement of an overflow, its location and when it ceases.
- A new duty on water companies to continuously monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow and of sewage disposal works.
- A new duty on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans setting out how the company will manage and develop its networks, and how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.
For the first time, this Government will be telling the industry’s financial regulator that it expects water companies to take steps to 'significantly reduce storm overflows', and that it expects funding to be approved for them to do so.