Sewage and the Environment Bill: 8 things you need to know

The Environmnent Bill returns to the Commons on Monday. Photograph: Pixabay The Environmnent Bill returns to the Commons on Monday. Photograph: Pixabay

A lot has changed over the last year or so

In September 2020, environment minister Rebecca Pow said a newly launched storm overflows taskforce, made up of water firms and regulators, would tackle the blight of sewage pollution and that she had challenged water companies to “step up and play their part”. But continuing pressure from campaign groups and mounting media interest has pushed the government to make stronger commitments as part of the Environment Bill. 

Initially the Environment Bill was light on immediate action on sewage

The water section of the bill in its first iteration focused mainly on supply, abstraction and requiring water firms to create drainage plans. Water companies must produce the comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a 25-year planning horizon, including how storm overflows will be addressed. The bill also gives the government powers to direct water companies in relation to the plans if it deems them not to be good enough. 

But this was deemed too weak by critics

To satisfy growing calls for stronger action, 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, was added to the bill. A further 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, was also added, with both the plan and the report required before 1 September 2022. 

A new draft strategic policy statement for Ofwat was created

In July, the government published a consultation on a draft version of a new strategic policy statement (SPS) for Ofwat, which sets out the government's strategic priorities for the body's regulation of the water sector in England. MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee responded to the consultation raising concerns that the statement changes the wording around the use of combined sewer overflows from ‘exceptional’ circumstances to ‘infrequent’ use.

The committee also took issue with the statement’s proposal to reward water companies for achieving compliance with environmental rules. It said they should not be rewarded, but should be penalised for failure.

A call for real-time pollution data was answered

Three more government amendments were added to the bill in August: a new duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis, a new duty on water companies to publish near real time information - within one hour - on the operation of storm overflows, and a new duty directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works. 

Stronger wording was pledged this week

Earlier this week, the Lords debated an amendment, tabled by the Duke of Wellington, that would place a duty on “sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows into inland and coastal waters”. Responding, environment minister Lord Goldsmith said he was “absolutely delighted to confirm that the government will bring forward an amendment in lieu in the Commons at the next stage” that follows the direction set by the government’s draft policy statement to Ofwat in July, stating that water companies should “significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows”.

A row has broken out over the cost of ending sewage pollution

Pow told the House of Commons that preventing sewage pollution would cost somewhere between £150bn and £660bn, according to a draft report by the storm overflows taskforce, a figure that has been immediately challenged by campaigners. The Angling Trust claims to have seen a copy of a draft report, which it says makes no mention of the £660bn figure.

The minister said later that: "To reduce these overflows to zero, the taskforce has come back after much research to say that the cost would be between £150 billion and £300 billion. That would be done through increasing the size of the infrastructure, but there would still probably be some use of the overflows if we have massive storms".

She added that "if we then wanted to completely separate our system so that we had one pipe for rainwater and one pipe for sewage, the taskforce estimated, after much research, that that would cost between £350 billion and £600 billion".

A water target will be put in place

At least one new water target is planned. In a policy paper published in August 2020, the government set out the objectives for targets currently under consideration, including reducing pollution from agriculture, wastewater, and abandoned metal mines, and reducing water demand.