Today
Wed 22 September 2021

Stuart Heaver reports on the last chance for the Government to avert the sewage pollution crisis by making water companies responsible

The clock is ticking on England’s sewage pollution crisis that is threatening everything from public health and housing, to fragile marine ecosystems and coastal economies. 

Environmental campaigners now only have a few weeks left to add critical amendments to the Environment Bill when it returns to Parliament in September. They are arguing that antique infrastructure, population growth, housing development, weak regulation and climate change are all combining to create the ‘perfect s***storm’.

However, the indications are that the Government is determined to retain the status quo, despite growing evidence that existing laws are failing to tackle the crisis. 

Emma Montlake, of the Environmental Law Foundation, says that existing laws are inadequate to control an industry which Green MP Caroline Lucas has described as “out of control”. Hugo Tagholm, of Surfers Against Sewage, believes that the industry is guilty of “corporate vandalism”.

“We need to change the law,” Tagholm told Byline Times. “There is too much self-regulation and self-reporting. We need to see fines that can’t just be built into the business model”.

He is calling for legally-enforced sewage reduction targets and tougher regulation.

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Failing System and Regulations

Veteran sewage campaigner Bob Latimer from Whitburn, South Tyneside, has seen first-hand the impact of inaction when it comes to sewage pollution.

He has been battling what he regards as a persistent problem of his local beach and waters, overseen by the Northumbrian Water Group, for more than two decades.

“We’ve got a third-rate sewage system and a fifth-rate regulator,” he told Byline Times.

Further south in Hampshire, seasoned anti-sewage campaigner and firefighter, Mike Owens, has a similar view. He founded the Hayling Sewage Watch five years ago and the group now numbers more than 3,000 concerned citizens. Its social media page is full of reports of floating tampons and untreated sewage discharged by Southern Water into Langstone and Chichester harbours.

“Given a free hand, I would like to force Parliament to improve the regulations and better fund the regulator,” he said.

The Environment Agency rejects the criticism. However, it does concede that with significant pressures on funding in recent years, it has had to reduce overall monitoring and enforcement activity “below the level we would wish”. It has seen its funding cut by 60% and one report estimates that prosecutions have reduced by 86% between 2000 and 2019.

There were more than 400,000 unauthorised sewage discharges in England in 2020. Peter Hammond, a retired professor of computational biology, told MPs in April that he estimated that only about 10% of these illegal permit violations resulted in prosecutions by the regulator.


A New Opportunity?

The Environment Bill is scheduled to enter the ‘report stage’ in the House of Lords on 6 September. According to the Government, it will “transform our environmental governance once we leave the EU by putting environmental principles into law; introducing legally binding targets; and establishing a new Office for Environmental Protection”. 

In March, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow announced that new measures to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows will be written into law, as part of what she described as “an ambitious agenda to build back greener from the pandemic”.

But the plans fail to compel water companies to do anything that they are not already doing.

Instead, the bill introduces legal duties on the Government – as opposed to the polluters – to publish a plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows and to report progress on implementing that plan to Parliament. The Government is then due to report on the plan next September.

Experts have raised concerns that the Government has no capability or expertise to produce such a complex and detailed technical plan, let alone the means to implement it. Others are confused as to why the Government appears to be voluntarily assuming responsibilities which are the statutory obligations of water companies.  

Despite their abject track record on environmental protection, the only significant new legal duties imposed on water companies in the bill are to produce a sewage and surface water management plan and publish their discharge data to the public. However, this is something most water companies already do, suggesting that it will not lead to any meaningful change.

Some campaigners, including Hugo Tagholm, are calling for the criminal prosecution of water company executives guilty of repeated pollution offences. But the bill in its current format does not even contain a legal requirement for their published data to be accurate.

“I have been involved with this issue since the 1980s and change only comes about when the law is used as an instrument for change,” said David Levy of environmental campaign group Marinet. “We urgently need legal obligations on water companies to deliver improvements, not just plans and more talk.”

Marinet has been working with the Duke of Wellington and other peers in the House of Lords to propose an amendment to clause 79 of the bill, which would require water companies to produce new plans, as well as have “a requirement to improve every year the grade of sewage treatment of the sewerage system and also to separate the operation of the drainage system from the sewerage system”.

The Government has so far refused to entertain the amendment.


Groaning Infrastructure

There is universal recognition that separating storm water drainage from sewers (foul water) is key to solving the crisis. However, the country’s Victorian infrastructure has been neglected for so long that eye-watering levels of investment are now urgently needed to build essential storm water holding tanks, introduce more tertiary treatment, and separate storm water drains from sewage.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ storm overflow taskforce estimated the cost at £150 billion.

“Ultimately, it’s all down to money, who is going to invest in an inadequate system, and who will pay when most profit goes out of the industry in the form of dividends,” said David Levy.

Water companies are blue chip organisations with considerable resources. For example, Southern Water is owned by a mixture of infrastructure and pension funds and private equity. 

In the case of the Northumbrian Water Group, some of the profits that might fund infrastructure improvements instead go to CK Hutchison Holdings Limited – an investment conglomerate owned by the wealthiest tycoon in Hong Kong, Li Ka Shing. 

Even the fines imposed on water companies are not used to address the key problem of under-investment in infrastructure. OFWAT – the financial regulator – restricts the amount of infrastructure investment made by water companies, in order to keep household bills at a sensible level.

It is apparent from the current form of the Environment Bill that the Government has no intention of making water companies undertake the improvements to the system needed to address the sewage pollution crisis. If this bill is not improved, the knock-on effect will extend beyond public health and the environment.

“If the bill does not get this right, we will just go on as we have been with water companies being able to pollute with seemingly no recourse,” added Emma Montlake.

Unless the law changes, there will be no building back greener – there may be no building back at all.

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