There has been much misunderstanding and controversy concerning the Environment Bill as it passes through Parliament. To be clear: the Bill strengthens controls on sewage outfalls – not weakens it. But had the amendment stopping all sewage outfalls been passed, it would have resulted in the dangerous discharge of sewage into our streets at times of high rainfall and would have landed customers with unsustainably high water bills. The amendment proposed by a back bench hereditary Peer had just not been thought through.
The Environment Bill now imposes
- a new duty on Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and their adverse impact, and report to Parliament on progress.
- a requirement for government to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions. Both publications are required before 1 September 2022.
- a new duty directly on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
- a new duty directly on water companies to publish near real time information on the operation of storm overflows.
- a new duty directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works.
- a new duty directly on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning horizon, including how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.
- a power of direction for the government to direct water companies in relation to the actions in these Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans. We will not hesitate to use this power of direction if plans are not good enough.
In addition, between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £7.1bn on environmental improvements in England. Of this, £3.1 billion specifically will be invested in storm overflow improvements.
The age of our Victorian sewerage systems means that the complete elimination of discharges from storm overflows would be extremely difficult. This process would involve the complete separation of sewerage systems, leading to potentially significant disruption for homes, businesses and infrastructure across the country. Initial assessments suggest total elimination would cost anywhere from £150 billion to £600 billion. With such amounts, huge customer bill increases and trade-offs against other water industry priorities would be unavoidable.
Governments – as opposed to opposition parties – do need to take all these factors into account.
However, addressing storm overflows is only one part of the picture when it comes to improving water quality. The Environment Bill requires the Government to set and achieve at least one new target to drive progress when it comes to water. In the policy paper published in August 2020, the Government set out the objectives for targets currently under consideration. For water, these include reducing pollution from agriculture, wastewater, and abandoned metal mines, and reducing water demand.
Funding for the Catchment Sensitive Farming programme has almost doubled with an additional £17m over the next three years. The new annual budget will be £30m, up from £16.6m in 2020 / 21. This includes allocating £1.2 million to the Environment Agency to significantly increase the number of inspectors visiting farmers to reduce diffuse water pollution, with 50 additional full-time employees recruited for inspections. Taking a catchment wide approach to water management is vital in our more holistic approach to water management.
Over 3,000 hectares of new woodlands are set to be planted along England’s rivers and watercourses. Planting trees on and around riverbanks, or allowing them to grow naturally, can help to improve water quality by reducing the runoff of pollutants into rivers.
Further changes to strengthen the Environment Bill will be added as the legislation passes through Parliament and sensible improvements will have my support.