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Meeting the objectives of the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan is not enough

Emily Cooper, Policy and Advocacy Manager at Marine Conservation Society, responds to the Water UK sewage spills apology & shares thoughts on the ambition needed to tackle sewage pollution.

May 2023

Last week, water companies in England apologised for not acting quickly enough to tackle sewage spills. It’s fair to say that the apology is warranted: last year alone, sewage spilled into English waters over 300,000 times, and water companies are under investigation by the Environment Agency and Ofwat for unpermitted discharges. Speaking through Water UK, water companies pledged to ‘put things right’. Is this the start of a new era for our seas and rivers, or more foul play?

The announcement makes promising claims, underpinned by promises of huge investment. The apology begins with a shopping list of improvements which waters companies will ‘aim to’ deliver. That phrasing alone is worrying. Intentions count for very little—particularly when it comes to the irreversible pollution of our water. Noncommittal verbiage aside, if this was your first exposure to England’s sewage scandal, you might see this list as proof that water companies are really pulling their collective socks up.

In truth, the listed improvements are simply tools to achieve the legal obligation set out under the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan. The Plan states that water companies must “progressively reduce adverse impacts of discharges”. Essentially, water companies are telling us how they plan to achieve what they are already legally obliged to do.

It’s hard to interpret these improvements as a gesture of good will, given that it’s taken the threat of legal repercussion to provoke them into action. This reframing of improvements instrumental to water companies achieving their legal obligation is misleading. Doubly so when the apology is framed as a step toward transparency.

The announcement details that, by 2030, the initial wave of investment will, “aim to cut sewage overflows by up to 140,000 each year compared to the level in 2020”. It feels as if Water UK expect this pledge to be met with fanfare. Some might argue that taking seven years to aim to reduce sewage spills to a level which most would still find unacceptable falls short of any definition of ambition.

Water UK also pledges to create an independently overseen National Environment Data Hub. The Hub will provide “near real time” information on the operation of storm overflows. What the announcement fails to mention is that the Data Hub is a vehicle for yet another legal obligation. Under the Environment Act, by 2025, water companies must provide data about the frequency and duration of storm overflow discharges for all overflows in near real time and make this available to the public. Ofwat is already examining the possibility of penalising water companies who do not adhere to this commitment.

Overall, the apology is murkier than our polluted waters—but there are feeble rays of light. One is the promise to support ‘up to’ 100 communities in applying for designated bathing water. Bathing waters provide a fantastic way for people to engage with local blue spaces and reduce some of the risks inherent to swimming in open water. However, after decades of underinvestment, this gesture is a drop in the sewage-filled ocean.

Meeting the objectives of the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan is not enough. The Plan itself fails to address sewage pollution with the urgency it requires. Under the Plan, water companies are permitted to continue dumping sewage for three decades to come, in addition to excluding swathes of coastal waters. As a result, the Marine Conservation Society have joined a legal case to compel the Government to rewrite it and provide better protection for our coasts. Ahead of our High Court hearing in July, it’s hard to interpret Water UK’s apology as anything other than lukewarm.

Emily Cooper is Policy and Advocacy Manager (Water Quality) at Marine Conservation Society.

Follow: @mcsuk

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.