‘Conspiracy of silence’: DEFRA and regulator subject of sewage complaint to OEP

DEFRA and Ofwat have found themselves the subject of a complaint to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) for their “failure to enforce water companies’ duty to effectually deal with sewage”.

Extinction Rebellion activists arrive outside DEFRA to protest against the pollution of the UK's waterways last month in London. Photograph: Mark Kerrison/Getty Images Extinction Rebellion activists arrive outside DEFRA to protest against the pollution of the UK's waterways last month in London. Photograph: Mark Kerrison/Getty Images

The complaint, lodged in May by Salmon and Trout Conservation but only made public today, states that the environment secretary George Eustice and Ofwat are not enforcing clauses within the Water Industry Act that require a “sufficient investment in sewerage infrastructure”. 

According to a complaints report published in July by the interim OEP’s predecessor body, the Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat, 19 complaints were received between 1 January and 31 June, of which 10 have been closed. The OEP has yet to disclose full details of active cases. 

Salmon and Trout Conservation’s chief executive Nick Measham and solicitor to the charity Guy Linley-Adams wrote to environment minister Rebecca Pow in April, arguing that infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth because the water sector’s asset management plans have not required water firms to do so. 

Pow responded to the charity in June, stating that “reducing the harm from sewage discharges is a government priority” and saying that the work of the Storm Overflows Taskforce and new measures in the Environment Bill (later strengthened by further amendments), would serve to reduce sewage discharges. 

While the Environment Agency is not named in the complaint, Salmon and Trout Conservation argues that “there has been 25 years of the agency failing to impose environmental permits that properly protect rivers - and then to monitor, inspect and enforce against those permits”.

Linley-Adams said: “While the government busies itself tabling amendments of its own Environment Bill, and pretends to be making huge concessions on sewage pollution, the truth of the matter is that it and successive governments have simply failed to use the enforcement powers in the Water Industry Act 1991 to require water companies to treat sewage to a decent standard.

“There has been an unhealthy conspiracy of silence between the government, Ofwat and the Environment Agency over many years, driven by the political desire to keep water bills down, come what may, but that has occurred at the expense of the environment. The current furore about the quality of water in English rivers is the culmination of years of neglect and a wilful failure to enforce the law,” he added. 

Measham said he looked forward to reading “what the OEP thinks about successive secretaries of state and their regulators' abject failure to tackle and prevent sewage pollution, which is what we were all promised at the time of privatisation back in 1990”. 

The charity is asking the OEP to investigate the whole issue, but “particularly the activities of Ofwat in providing for and securing water industry investment in sewerage infrastructure and treatment works capacity, and the secretary of state’s guidance to Ofwat”. 

DEFRA had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication, but an Environment Agency spokesperson said that “all water companies have a legal duty to protect the environment” and noted that “Southern Water were handed a record £90m fine by the court last month for historic pollution offences in the South and South East, following an Environment Agency investigation”. They added that the agency is working with government, the water industry and others to reduce sewage spills.

An Ofwat spokesperson said the regulator was aware of the complaint. "As part of our work on the storm overflows taskforce we are working with DEFRA, the Environment Agency, consumer bodies and environmental groups to tackle the harm caused by storm overflows. We recently wrote to water and sewerage companies to set out our clear expectations, alongside over £1 billion of investment to reduce the use of storm overflows and the installation of monitoring devices by 2023 in England and by March 2022 in Wales," they said.

They added: "We will continue to push water and sewerage companies to make the step-change that is required to deliver the action needed."

Salmon and Trout Conservation’s move is the latest step in a long line of attempts to get government to act to improve the state of the country’s water bodies. None of England’s rivers passed overall water quality standards at the last assessment, made in 2019 and published in 2020. According to the agency, sewage discharges are responsible for around 36% of water bodies’ failure to meet Water Framework Directive standards. 

DEFRA and its agencies have been coming under increasing pressure to stem the growing volume of raw sewage entering rivers legally and illegally each year. Last week, it emerged that Brexit-related disruptions to supply chains meant there could be a shortage of water treatment chemicals, which could lead to more poorer quality wastewater entering rivers.