As a former Environment Minister, I am well aware of the issue and also the previous efforts to tackle this problem. That included enforcement of existing laws by regulators with some prosecutions and hefty fines, including a fine of £90m against Southern Water this year. The Government has always set out expectations that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows and this instruction will now be put on an enhanced legal footing with further powers that can be used by ministers.
Contrary to misleading social media, I voted for regulations to reduce harms from storm overflows. Amendments tabled by backbenchers are often unenforceable in law as they are incorrectly drafted and often, if government wants to support the trust of what a backbencher wants, it has to reject it and come forward with a correctly drafted amendment. This happens regularly and did so in the case of the Duke of Wellington’s latest amendment. Unlike the Duke’s amendment, which did not come with a plan or contain a workable enforcement mechanism for the new duty it seeks to create, the Government’s amendment docks into the enforcement mechanism in section 18 of the Water Industry Act 1991.
The new measures include 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. The Act will also create a new duty on Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and 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.
The package of measures I voted for will also create three new duties on water companies to publish data on storm overflow operation, publish near real time information on the operation of storm overflows and to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works. In addition, the Government secured an amendment that says that water companies must secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from their storm overflows, placing a direct legal duty on water companies.
This is all building towards the Government’s ambition to end pollution from storm overflows, transforming our sewerage system which has been in operation since the Victorian Era.
Despite what some may claim, and however much we might all wish it to be the case, the truth is that we cannot transform a system which has operated since the Victorian Era overnight with a blanket ban on sewage discharges. Not only would this put people’s homes at risk of being flooded with sewage during times of heavy rain, it would also leave billpayers exposed to the costs of eliminating storm overflows, estimated to be well over £100bn.
To protect billpayers from disproportionate bill rises, the Government’s actions will ensure the onus is on the water companies to deliver the investment we need to see.
Locally, Anglian Water have this month invested £100,000 in Southwold to clean 8 miles of sewer, ensuring that the waterways can flow at full capacity and fitting pipes with remote sensors. Having previously visited the Southwold Water Works site and followed up on the foul smell in the area, I know residents and visitors alike will welcome this investment. I know the Environment Agency has previously fined Anglian Water for sewage spills in other parts of the country and it is welcome that they are proactively undertaking work here to strengthen the sewage network.
In July of this year, this Government set out, for the first time ever, its expectation that Ofwat should incentivise water companies to invest to significantly reduce the use of storm overflows in the forthcoming pricing review period. This is a very powerful tool for the Government to drive action from water companies, as it strongly influences investment decisions and financial assessment.
Taken together, the Environment Act will ensure that there are stronger protections against water pollution than ever before, with decisive legislative action is being taken to end harm from storm overflows and protect the health of our rivers.