Notwithstanding the turmoil at Westminster and in the financial markets, I find that I am inundated instead by a host of emails demanding to know why I voted to allow sewage to be discharged into our rivers. As I said in this column almost exactly a year ago, I haven’t. On the contrary this is the first Government to set a clear requirement for water companies to reduce sewage discharges. Water companies are having to invest £3.1 billion now to deliver 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025, which will reduce discharges by 25%.
The fact is that we previously had little idea how much foul water was being discharged, because it simply wasn’t being measured: In 2016, only 5% of storm overflows were monitored. Following the action of this Government, almost 90% are now monitored, and by next year 100% of all storm overflows will be required to have monitors fitted. This new information has allowed regulators to take action against water companies. The Environment Agency and Ofwat have launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water companies ever, at more than 2,200 treatment works, following the improvements that have been made to secure the monitoring data. That follows 54 prosecutions against water companies since 2015, totting-up fines of nearly £140 million.
It is now a legal requirement for companies to provide discharge data to the Environment Agency and make it available to the public within an hour of the discharge. That’s what I voted for. The Environment Act that will clean up our rivers and restore our water with tough new duties to tackle sewage overflows for the first time.
Ofwat is currently working up proposals that will enable it to take enforcement action against companies that do not link dividend payments for shareholders to their environmental performance.
Last month the Government laid before Parliament the storm overflows discharge reduction plan which starts the largest investment in infrastructure ever undertaken by the water industry: an estimated £56 billion of capital investment over the next 25 years, with strict new targets for water companies to reduce sewage discharges.
By 2035, water companies must ensure that overflows affecting designated bathing waters meet strict standards to protect public health.
Why so long?
Because just banning discharges, as my correspondents demand, without first building the very significant infrastructure necessary to make accommodate the foul water, will ensure that it -with nowhere else to go- backs-up into out toilets and drains. Then the s—t really will hit the fan.