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Sewage Pollution: Lakes and Rivers

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent meetings they have had with environmental organisations to discuss measures to reduce sewage pollution in lakes and rivers.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Defra Ministers and officials consult extensively and routinely with a wide range of stakeholders, including environmental organisations, on this very important issue. For example, since March my officials have met with Surfers Against Sewage, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Shellfish Association of Great Britain. We all agree that the current volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is unacceptable. Reducing sewage pollution in British lakes and rivers remains a top priority for the Government.

My Lords, since the House last debated this subject, there have been reports that sewage discharges have doubled in many of our rivers over the last year and that England’s largest lake, Windermere, has a very bad pollution problem. There have even been warnings to the Oxford and Cambridge boat crews about the health risks of the water of the River Thames. Given recent reports and publications, does the Minister have urgent plans to meet the Rivers Trust, Friends of the Earth and Sustain to review their recent findings and discuss urgent measures and long-term strategy?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I assure the House that the Government are taking huge steps to improve the quality of our waterways. We have driven environmentally sensitive farming through the environmental land management schemes to reduce pollution from the agricultural sector, introduced a range of new targets and laws, including 100% monitoring of storm overflows, increased Environment Agency resources for inspections and introduced new legislation to curb dividends and bonuses. We have created a water restoration fund and fast-tracked £180 million of new funding to improve infrastructure this year. Perhaps most importantly, we have also created a long-term vision through our Plan for Water, which marks a step change in our approach and will see £60 billion of investment into infrastructure over the next 25 years. Notwithstanding that, as I said in opening, we have met an enormous number of individuals, environmental groups and interested parties, including the Rivers Trust, which the noble Baroness mentioned. I have met that organisation personally on a number of occasions, although not specifically on this issue.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a sea change happened when the legal advice from the Environment Agency was made mandatory? Will the Government agree to accord the same legal status to advice from water companies on when it is unsafe for pipes to be connected to the existing sewage works of new build, including major developments of up to 300? When will the Government bring forward regulations to end the automatic right to connect and a mandatory requirement for SUDS, which will ensure that many sewage works work properly and the sewage does not enter lakes, rivers and the sea?

My noble friend raises a very good point; the water companies are consulted on these issues on a regular basis.

My Lords, I think the Minister just said that there is 100% monitoring of storm overflows, but my understanding is that, whereas the quality of water coming into the rivers from sewage plants is indeed monitored, outflows from the combined sewage overflows are not completely monitored and should be. That still needs further monitoring. Will the Minister meet with the Environment Agency and suggest that it accelerates the programme of installing monitoring of the combined sewage overflows?

The noble Duke has a profound knowledge of this issue, so I will bow to that on this occasion. I commit to speaking to the Environment Agency on this issue and will take that point forward.

My Lords, there should be a general principle of transparency and openness where water companies are concerned. A tribunal recently overturned the ICO’s decision to support a water company’s attempt to withhold sewage flow data. It is unlikely that water companies will publish information unless forced to do so. Will the Minister change Ofwat’s strategic statement to make it clear that transparency—the routine publication of sewage data—is a condition of licensing?

My Lords, have not the regulator and Ministers allowed the water companies to rip off the general public for the last 13 years? Can the Minister guarantee that no water company will be nationalised, and that they will wait for them to be bankrupt and then take them into public ownership?

My Lords, the Government are committed to a system of independent economic regulation and have no plans to bring the water companies into public ownership. Since privatisation, the private water sector model has unlocked around £215 billion of investment and delivered a wide range of benefits, including a fivefold decrease in supply interruptions to customers and a reduction in leakages by one third.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that much of the pollution of many rivers emanates from the effluent from chicken farms? What specific targets do the Government have in mind to reduce this, and will they take legislative action to ensure that they are binding and produce the results necessary?

The noble Lord is quite right: there is a significant issue with chicken manure in the Wye valley. There has recently been a proposal to put together a Wye river plan, and I will ensure that this goes ahead.

My Lords, is it beyond an advanced country such as this to have an ambition and a determination to have zero leakage of sewage into our rivers? Have the Government got such an ambition and a plan? If so, I would be interested to know.

Yes. I point the noble Baroness to the plan for water, which lays out very clearly the 25-year strategy to reduce storm overflows to zero, and the investment plan that goes with that.

My Lords, for the last couple of years the Government have talked a lot about all the action they have been taking, but the situation seems to be getting worse. How is all the monitoring that is happening actually going to be used to drive forward change and reduction at last?

Regarding one of the issues the noble Baroness raises, we now have a lot more information available to us to look at. When we did not have storm overflow discharge information, we were ignorant of the amount of sewage that was going into our rivers, lakes and other waterways. If you look at the results for the bathing water test, for example, you can see a significant improvement over the last 15 years because of all the measures we put in.

Does my noble friend not recognise that we will make no progress on this matter until the directors of the water companies are held personally responsible and they are fined, instead of the consumer having to pick up the cost of the fine?

My noble friend is quite right, and that is why the Government have taken a number of actions recently to introduce restrictions on dividends and bonuses. I will take his point about personal responsibility back to the department.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of River Action, which is committed to cleaning up our rivers. The Minister said that it is a top priority for the Government, and I assure him that, on doorsteps and on the streets, it is also a top priority for people—for voters. The issue of public ownership keeps coming up. The first time a water company fails—for example, Thames Water—why not take it over, load the debt into the company so that it can gradually pay off its own debt and ensure that no dividends are paid out?

The noble Baroness raises a very interesting prospect, which I will consider carefully and take back to the department.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the River Wye. The great news is that a citizen science army of people has been monitoring the whole of that catchment area. Do the Government encourage that model? If so, how will they encourage the Environment Agency to spread that great exercise to other catchments in the country?

The River Wye action plan, which the noble Lord refers to, is firmly supported by the Government. Any citizen science groups are very welcome to interact with the Environment Agency at any time.