Government Action Taken Against Sewage Discharges and Concerns Over Bathing Waters (March 2024)

 Sewage discharges and concerns over bathing waters 2024

 

We must have an open and honest conversation about human waste. Human waste needs to be dealt with differently to other forms of waste and is created by us all; we are all, therefore, having an impact on the water systems. We all want and rightly expect clean water and the beach and waterside and working toilets at home and at work. This can be achieved, but we are working with archaic systems and design that were never environmentally-conscience and date back centuries.

I am keen to increase my constituents’ understanding and knowledge of what steps the Government has taken and continues to take, what Conservative MPs have voted for and the current actions the Government has committed water companies to, and why people should be reassured despite some alarmism and misinformation on social media.

Government Ministers and I are clear that the use of sewage discharges is unacceptable. The only reason why we know the extent of this is because Conservative ministers put monitoring requirements in place on storm overflows. Event Curation Monitoring (EDM) collects data on the location and duration of storm overflow events. This means that there has been a massive expansion in monitoring frequency and duration of discharges, from approximately 7 per cent in 2010 to 100% of storm overflows across the water network in England having now been fitted, meeting the ambitious target set by the government to do so by the end of 2023. These monitors provide vital information about their use so that water companies can be held to account. Ministers have significantly improved transparency through the Environment Act by making it a legal requirement for water companies to provide discharge data to the Environment Agency and to make it available in near real time to the public. Tackling storm overflows is a priority and the Government is committed to protecting public health and the environment from discharges.

To be clear, I did not vote to allow water companies to pump sewage into our rivers in November 2021. On that day, my ministerial colleagues and I actually voted for a package of measures to reduce harms from storm overflows. I voted for new legislation that makes a positive difference in an aged system that cannot be transformed overnight but must be overhauled.

In April last year, the Government published the Plan for Water, which marks a step-change in how we manage our waters. Our Plan for Water will transform the water system through more investment, stronger regulation, and tougher enforcement to deliver the clean and plentiful water the public expects.  The Government are tackling every source of pollution, from agriculture, road run-off, and chemicals – as well as the pressures on our water resources as a result of hotter, drier summers and population growth. That means supporting our farmers to manage slurry and reduce run-off, improving water efficiency in our homes, banning harmful chemicals, and holding water companies to account.

Over £2.2 billion of new, accelerated investment will be directed into vital infrastructure to improve water quality and secure future supplies, with £1.7bn of this being used to tackle storm overflows.

Additionally, on the 11th of March 2024 the Government confirmed that water companies will invest an additional £180 million over the next 12 months to prevent more than 8,000 sewage spills polluting English waterways, following the Secretary of State directing water and sewage companies last December to measurably reduce sewage spills over the next year.

 

 

Tackling storm overflows

In August 2022 the Government launched the most ambitious plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows in water company history. Following consultation, the government published an expanded Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan on 25 September 2023 to cover storm overflows discharging to coastal and estuarine waters.

This Plan will drive the largest infrastructure programme in water company history - £60 billion capital investment over 25 years.  

The Plan prioritises bathing waters and areas of high ecological importance for early action. It will eliminate ecological harm from all storm sewage discharges by 2050.

Instantly ending Combined System Overflows (CSOs) is simply not practical or deliverable. Initial assessments suggest elimination would cost more than £150 billion. Some assessments have put this substantially higher with cost of roads works, digging up and replacing the systems and impacts of this meaning it could be more around £400 billion. With such vast amounts, customer bill increases and trade-offs against other water industry priorities would likely be unavoidable.

Instantly banning sewage from being released via storm overflows would simply lead to it being moved elsewhere - namely back into our homes, gardens and streets. I voted against allowing sewage into our homes and businesses, instead voting for work to be fully costed and delivered which will design out and end these unacceptable outflows and make sure this is not a go to option for water companies. Any politician can vote for a fairy tale amendment, but I simply cannot commit bill payers and industry in any area to something that is undeliverable and unworkable. That is not to let the sector off, but to make sure we have a process that works alongside achieving change and deliverable commitments.

 

Regulation and enforcement

There are two water regulators; the first is the Environment Agency whose stated purpose is to protect and enhance the environment taken as a whole. The second is Ofwat. Ofwat is the Water Services Regulation Authority and is the body responsible for economic regulation of the privatised water and sewerage industry in England and Wales.  They both recently launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage discharges ever, at over 2,200 treatment works, following new data coming to light as a result of the increased monitoring, which has been driven by the Government.

We are driving up monitoring and transparency so the public can see what is going on – we have increased the number of storm overflows monitored across the network from 7% in 2010 to 100% of storm overflows across the water network in England having now been fitted.  

Water companies must not profit from environmental damage, and we have given Ofwat increased powers under the Environment Act 2021 to hold water companies to account for poor performance and ensure company dividends and bonus payments are linked to environmental performance.

We have been tough on requiring the water companies to deliver - and holding them to account when they do not. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 59 prosecutions, securing record fines of over £150 million against water companies. The Environment Agency has also launched the largest criminal investigation into unpermitted water company sewage discharges ever at over 2,200 treatment works.  

Ofwat can fine companies up to 10 per cent of annual turnover and from December 2023 the Environment Agency have been able to use penalties for a wider range of offences, including breaches, for example, of sewage treatment works and storm overflow permits. In November 2022 it was announced by the Government that the money from water company fines would be used for environmental improvements, rather than go into the Treasury coffers. I was very pleased with this announcement as I had been campaigning for this to happen.

Courts also have legal powers to prosecute Chief Executive Officers and company directors where there is evidence against those individuals and where it is in the public interest to prosecute.

The Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP Secretary of State Environment, Food & Rural Affairs in December 2023 wrote to all CEO’s of water companies to set out that the sewage discharge into our waterways is unacceptable, and that the Government will be pushing for tougher penalties for water companies. In light of this water bosses are set to be banned from receiving bonuses if a company has committed serious criminal breaches, the Environment Secretary has announced (12 February 2024). For more on this please use this link to my website: Sally-Ann Hart MP welcomes Government crackdown on bonuses for water company bosses | Sally-Ann Hart (sallyannhart.org.uk)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will tighten permits issued to water companies for storm overflows to make sure water companies deliver the targets in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan. Water companies will be required to increase the capacity of their networks and treat sewage before it is discharged, while massively reducing all discharges. Water companies are investing £3.1 billion to deliver the 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025.

I meet regularly with representatives from Southern Water to hold them to account and support their ambition to reduce the frequency and duration of storm overflows before the set Government targets, as well as improve water quality and water resources.
 
Bathing Water Quality
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With regard to Bathing water quality the Environment Agency take up to 20 samples at each bathing water throughout the bathing season which runs from mid-May until the end of September.

The Designated Bathing Water Current Classification for the bathing waters in my constituency, Hastings and Rye, are:

Camber Sands: Good

Winchelsea: Good

Hastings Pelham: Good

St Leonard’s:- Excellent

The Environment Agency provides a link to the Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) 2022 data set which you may find useful. The data shows how many times a permitted site has discharged in the past year, and the total number of hours it has discharged for. The data can be accessed at Defra Data Services Platform.
 
Pollution Risk Forecasts ( PRFs)
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From mid-May to the end of September the Environments Agency issue daily Pollution Risk Forecasts (PRFs) for a number of bathing waters, including Hastings, where water quality may be temporarily reduced due to factors, such as heavy rainfall, wind or the tide.  Heavy rainfall can increase the likelihood of storm overflows from the sewage system as well as pollution from urban run-off, such as roads and roofs. A PRF does not necessarily mean that there has been a combined system overflow as it can also relate to run off from farmland, roads, pavements, and roofs. To reiterate, a PRF is a forecast only.

When the Environment Agency issue a PRF, the council put up warning signs on the
beach. Some councils also put up red flags. You can check to see if there have been any actual releases by Southern Water on their website  https://www.southernwater.co.uk/water-for-life/beachbuoy/information 

 

Conclusion

Sewage discharges are unacceptable. This Conservative Government have introduced legislation so that we can regulate and eventually stop sewage discharges. We are experiencing wetter weather with more prolonged and heavier rainfall causing increased surface water run off.  The Government, Southern Water and the public need to work together to combat the effects of this. We must all consider taking steps to reduce water run off by taking measures such as using water butts and permeable paving among other ecological measures. It will take a collective effort to produce efficient and effective long-term results.

 

 

 

Sally-Ann Hart MP