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Government fails to act on sewage pollution crisis
The government’s over-hyped Environment Act 2021 makes many claims about how it will herald a new era in environment protection, from improvements to wildlife to cleaner air for us to breathe. One of its big claims is how it will tackle water quality and the state of our rivers and coastal waters. In particular, the governmen claims the Act will drive big changes in the health of our rivers.
The first test of the government’s commitment came on the 26th August, when late on Friday afternoon, they snuck out their Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, but it is a test they have failed.
The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan was published for consultation earlier this year. The Angling Trust, along with nearly 22,000 other organisations and individuals, responded calling for the plan to be more ambitious and for the timescale for delivery, between 2035 and 2050, to be brought forward.
The government has not only ignored us, they have also ignored the advice of their own expert group, the Storm Overflow Reduction Taskforce, who have not been given the results of the consultation nor invited to advise further on how the plan could have been strengthened.
Stuart Singleton-White, Head of Campaigns at the Angling Trust, said:
“Defras claim that the targets in this plan are the strictest ever for water companies to tackle sewage pollution and amounts to plans to deliver the largest ever investment in infrastructure to prevent pollution sound impressive. They aren’t and the government know this is a weak plan that falls short of what is needed.
“’Strictest targets’, ‘largest investment’, are not measures by which to judge this plan given the poor record of Defra and the water companies to tackle the deliberate polluting of our rivers and coast for decades.
“Its claims to ‘front load’ investment to protect bathing waters and ‘high priority nature sites’ are hollow. Given that high priority sites only account for 20% of Combned Sewer Overflows (CSOs) in England and only 8% of CSOs are near bathing waters, reducing spills that impact on these areas by 75% by 2035 is simply not good enough. It means that by 2035 less than a third of CSOs will have been dealt with. As for the rest, we have to wait until 2050 before they are finally tackled. And overflows into our estuarine and coastal waters are not covered by this plan.
“This is a government trying to spin its way out of a problem it only sees as needing to manage from a PR perspective. Our rivers and coasts are paying the price for this complacency.”
The Angling Trust has joined with other NGOs in the Blueprint for Water coalition in condemning this plan, and welcomes the move by WildFish (previously Salmon and Trout Conservation) in pushing for a judicial review on the basis it is unlawful as it will allow water companies to continue to dump raw sewage into our rivers for the next 28 years, something that is already illegal.
“Even if the targets are met by 2035 and 2050, not only we will have to suffer this appalling assault on our precious rivers for another 28 years, but after those dates storm overflows will continue to spill. The government will allow them to operate during periods of ‘unusually heavy rainfall events’ but have not defined what an unusually heavy event will be given the impact of climate change. At bathing water and important wildlife sites, they will allow CSOs to spill up to three times during the bathing season, and for other CSOs they will allow them to spill up to 10 times a year.”
There are some nuggets of good news buried within the plan. The government is looking at ways to separate the rainwater that falls on our roofs and the ground from entering our sewage network through the development of measure in homes, and through sustainable urban drainages systems and natural solutions such as wetlands. And they are looking at ending the automatic right to connect to the sewage network for new homes giving companies more powers to prevent housebuilders simply connecting rainwater drains to the sewers. But overall, this is a plan that fails to address the crisis of pollution from sewage, the failure of water companies, and the need to hold them to account by demanding more investment more quickly, paid for out of water company profits not customers’ bills.