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Environment Secretary challenged to deliver more than ‘warm words’ to end sewage scandals
The Angling Trust has today written to the Environment Secretary, Therese Coffey, calling on her to use her powers to act with more urgency to clean up sewage spills entering our rivers from storm overflows and to demand full transparency from water companies.
This followed her comments to the Lords Industry and Regulation Committee on the issue of sewage pollution from storm overflows in which Therese Coffey expressed the view that she would like water companies to “do it a lot quicker” than the 2050 deadline set by her predecessor last November.
While an interim target of 2035 has been set, this applies to high priority sites that only account for 20% of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) in England. Therefore, reducing spills that impact on these areas by 75% by 2035, as the government plan requires, means that by 2035 less than a third of CSOs will have been dealt with. 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.
CSOs are meant to operate only when there are exceptional circumstances, such as in storm periods which mean there is a risk of sewage backing up into people’s homes and streets. Due to a chronic lack of investment in the UK’s wastewater infrastructure these discharges are commonplace rather than exceptional.
Over the period 2020 and 2021, the CSOs have discharged raw or partially treated sewage into our rivers on 760,000 separate occasions, lasting for a total period in excess of 5.7 million hours. The water companies are supposed to be publishing real time data on these discharges but so far only Thames Water has done so. There interactive map giving information in near real time has shown that over the last two days (as of 25 January) Thames Water storm overflows have collectively discharged sewage for more than 154 hours. The situation is likely to be similar in other water company areas but the data is not being made available to the public.
Martin Salter, Head of Policy at the Angling Trust, said:
“I’m delighted that Therese Coffey wants to do more and go further than her predecessors to tackle the sewage scandal in our rivers. She can but it will take a lot more than warm words. Firstly, she needs to provide additional guidance to water regulator OFWAT as a matter of urgency because the water industry is currently putting together their PR 24 Business Plans for the next five year investment round. The Secretary of State and OFWAT will need to approve these plans, so the buck stops with them. Without increased infrastructure investment, the sewage spills will continue.”
Stuart Singleton-White, Head of Campaigns at the Angling Trust, said:
“If ministers are serious about tackling the sewage scandal and delivering full transparency then they need to use all the levers at their disposal. They have the power to instruct the regulator and insist on full transparency when it comes to the amount and duration of sewage spills that are damaging our rivers. It is a disgrace that of the 11 water companies only one, Thames Water, is publishing real time data which allows anglers and others to see what’s going on. We are still waiting for the regulations setting out the deadline by which the others should comply. Why doesn’t Therese Coffey publish these now?”