Industry body Water UK has apologised on behalf of water and sewage companies in England for not acting quickly enough on sewage spills. To put things right, the industry plans to make the largest ever investment in storm overflows as part of a major programme to reduce spills into rivers and seas. In addition, a new national environmental hub with information on all 15,000 overflows in the country will increase transparency and allow the public to hold companies to account.
The industry’s plan includes the following three commitments:
1. Accelerating progress
We are today confirming companies’ readiness to invest what is needed to deliver the ambition set out in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan. This could involve additional funding of £10 billion this decade, more than tripling (and adding to) current levels of investment of £3.1bn 2020-25. If approved by regulators, we expect that, by 2030, through this initial wave of investment will will aim to cut sewage overflows by up to 140,000 each year compared to the level in 2020. This will kick-off the first wave of a massive transformation programme across 350,000 miles of sewer (a length that would stretch 14 times round the world).
Water companies across the country will aim to:
- Install the equivalent of thousands of new Olympic swimming pools to hold surges in rainwater that would otherwise overload the system;
- Increase the capacity of sewage treatment works, allowing them to treat higher volumes of rainfall and sewage;
- Replace concrete with grass and ponds to reduce rainfall run-off entering sewers, protecting them against the overloading that causes spills;
- Treat overflow spills so they have much less impact on the river, including through reed beds, wetlands and other nature-friendly projects; and
- Improve the sewer network by enlarging and improving pipes, allowing them to safely carry more sewage during peak times, and fixing misconnected pipes from properties.
A detailed National Overflows Plan will be published later this summer, explaining each companies’ approach to improving their overflows. This will include when improvements can be expected, and (as projects are developed) how improvements will be delivered and the expected results. For the first time, communities across the country will be able to find out exactly when overflows in their area will be improved and be able to hold their water and sewerage company to account.
2. More transparency to improve accountability
Water and sewage companies will collaborate on creating, by this time next year, a new independently-overseen National Environment Data Hub to provide the public with up-to-date information on the operation of all 15,000 sewage overflows in England. For the first time in the world, any member of the public will be able to get national ‘near real time’ (within the hour) information on what is happening, building on the requirement on individual companies set out in the Government’s world-leading Environment Act. This will strengthen accountability, help the public to track progress and empower swimmers and others with the information they need. In addition, as thousands of new river quality monitors come online (planned to be installed from 2025 onwards), this additional data will also be added to the Hub to let people see the real-world impact on rivers.
3. Supporting new bathing rivers
Water and sewage companies will help up to 100 communities interested in protecting rivers and other outdoor areas of water (like lakes and reservoirs) for the purpose of swimming and recreation. Each water and sewage company in England will also support the roll-out of new river swimming areas, by providing help to up to 100 communities to test the water, draw up plans, apply for legal protection, and work with regulators to fix local sources of pollution. Industry will also develop guidance and toolkits and support citizen scientists to help local groups navigate what can be a burdensome process.
Ruth Kelly, Chair of Water UK, said: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry. More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches. We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”