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Rivers and Coastal Waters: Sewage

Volume 816: debated on Monday 29 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had with water companies about the discharge of sewage into rivers and coastal waters.

My Lords, the Government have repeatedly made it clear to water companies that the current number of sewage discharges is totally unacceptable. My counterpart in the other House has made this very clear directly to the CEOs of the water companies. Government and regulators are working with the industry as part of the Storm Overflows Taskforce, and the Environment Agency and Ofwat have launched a major investigation into sewage discharges from sewage treatment works.

My Lords, this past week has seen the publication of a report by Surfers Against Sewage. It detailed an increase in sewage discharges as a result of which, one in every six days in the swimming season was declared “unswimmable”. There are also reports, just referred to by the Minister, of new investigations of widespread, unpermitted releases of sewage by water companies, which they are now admitting to. Given the urgency of the situation, has the Minister—beyond his concluding remarks on the Environment Bill—any updates on the timescale for progressively reducing sewage discharges, on bringing forward the Government’s own plan currently scheduled for next September, or on any other plans for new measures?

I very much agree with the comments of the noble Baroness and strongly welcome the work of Surfers Against Sewage, which has worked wonders in putting this issue at the top of the political agenda, where it belongs. On the back of that pressure, this House mobilised in a very effective way and that strengthened the hands of those in government who are keen to push the issue further. On timescale, the Government can use our direction-making powers in the drainage and sewage management plans to direct companies to take more action if needed. We will provide a further definition of what that means, and the ambition that we are working to, in early 2022—a few months’ time.

What has my noble friend’s department done on the need to improve infrastructure—for example, separating out foul water from surface water so that the amount of foul water that needs to be discharged is reduced? Does his department have a plan, has it been costed and is there a timetable?

My Lords, one of the things that the Government committed to during the passage of the then Environment Bill, now Act, was to conduct an assessment of what it would cost to eliminate storm overflows and—separately, because it is a different question—to eliminate the harm from storm overflows. We do not know yet what the cost of the former would be; estimates vary wildly from £150 million to £600 million. So we do not know what the cost will be or even where the opportunities are, but that is the purpose of the study that is being conducted and we will act on its results as a matter of urgency.

My Lords, I have a very simple question. I cannot understand how the Government can trumpet the privatisation of water as a success when companies such as United Utilities not only unsettle whole populations by failing to control their assets and stop flooding in Lake District towns such as Keswick, but also, following flooding, seem blind when their sewage plants overflow, fail and then pollute lakes such as Lake Bassenthwaite, destroying local wildlife. For how long do we have to tolerate these excesses and failures?

My Lords, the Government are committed to the private model, supported by strong independent economic regulation—that bit is the key. We have no plans to bring water into public ownership but, equally, holding a near-monopoly licence to provide these services is clearly a privilege and the Government and regulators have high expectations of the behaviour of owners and investors. That is now reflected in the toughest laws that this country has ever had in relation to our water quality.

My Lords, Southern Water is named as by far the largest culprit among the water companies in the report after the company issued 1,949 sewage discharge notifications, from a total of 5,517 around Britain. This accounted for 35% of all incidents from nine water companies. The company has already been fined but appears unrepentant. How are the Government going to bring Southern Water into line, given that fines do not appear to be a deterrent?

My Lords, we have made it clear to the water industry, including Southern Water, that it needs to reduce the adverse impacts of all sewage discharge discharges, whether treated or untreated, as a matter of urgency. In addition, the sector will need to demonstrate year-on-year progress in meeting those targets. Where the targets are not met, the Government will have no hesitation whatever in stepping in and using all the tools at our disposal.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend, his department and his officials for all the support that they have given on this issue during the passage of the then Environment Bill and the amendment from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, that was finally accepted. I welcome the investigation into the sewage discharges. Does my noble friend agree that a ban on wet wipes would significantly improve the ability of water companies to manage sewage treatment more effectively and, if he does, when any such measures could be anticipated?

The noble Baroness makes a really important point. There is no doubt that wet wipes can be a serious contributing factor to overflows at treatment works. Defra has already announced a call for evidence, which will explore among other things a possible ban on single-use wet wipes—or at least those that contain plastics. I assure the noble Baroness that, whatever the outcomes of that call for evidence, we are absolutely determined and willing to do whatever is necessary.

My Lords, the chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, said recently that the directors of water companies that are guilty of repeated deliberate or reckless breaches of environmental law should be struck off and, potentially, given custodial sentences. Does the Minister agree with her? If so, what are the Government doing to ensure that the individual directors responsible for these environmental crimes pay the right penalty for those actions?

My Lords, I was not aware of her suggestion, but it sounds like a very good idea and I will convey it back to my colleagues at the department. The cumulative effect of the Environment Act and the direction provided to Ofwat just a few months ago means that we have more tools to deal with these issues than we have ever had in the past. The Government have been clear, publicly but also directly with the water companies, that we are absolutely willing to—and, where necessary, will—use the tools at our disposal.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that our forebears who built our sewerage system sought to work with nature so as to reduce tremendously the amount of sewage discharge into natural watercourses but not to eliminate it; that the cost of going for total elimination at this stage would be enormous; and that it is important to consult the consumer before any dramatic pledges are made to see where he and she would like to put this in their scheme of priorities?

The noble Lord makes a really important point, and that is why we, and many campaigners, talk not about eliminating overflows but about eliminating the harm from overflows. That would then allow us to make more use of the kinds of natural systems that he mentioned—reed-bed systems, for example, which purify the water as it re-enters circulation. That would not be possible were we to eliminate overflows—but the key is eliminating harm and that is what we are focusing on.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that unauthorised discharges of untreated sewage will continue unless the regulators of this industry significantly up their game? I declare a past interest as a board member of both agencies in the past, when I think we did it rather better. Ofwat needs to assign part of the capital allowance to sewage treatment and the Environment Agency, in particular, needs to monitor and enforce the rules that, as the Minister says, are now there—but it needs staff to enforce them. When will the decline in the number of field staff at the Environment Agency be reversed?

My Lords, like all public bodies, the Environment Agency had to make difficult spending decisions in 2015. However, since 2015 the agency has brought nearly 50 prosecutions against water companies and secured fines of over £136 million, including a £90 million fine for Southern Water. Defra and its agencies also received a £1 billion increase in overall funding at the spending review and, given that this is a government priority, much of that resource will be spent tackling this issue.

Can the Minister tell the House what calculation the Government have made of the economic and ecological cost caused by the continued discharge of untreated sewage into coastal waters and inland waterways? Does he recognise that, if the Victorians had taken the approach of the Government, and apparently of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, they would have determined that laying the original sewage network was prohibitively expensive, and we would still be throwing our waste into the street?

I think the noble Lord is wrong about that. I am sure he would be the first to applaud the use of nature-based solutions in treating sewage run-off around the country. I think my noble friend Lord Moylan was advocating a continuation of that approach, because it is much cheaper and has all kinds of benefits that go beyond simply purifying the water. That is preferable to spending potentially unprecedented sums of money in other ways.