Thank you for your email of 1 November about the water industry. I apologise for the delay in replying. Defra is currently dealing with high volumes of correspondence.
I have made it clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority. We are the first Government to set an expectation on water companies to significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows.
The Strategic Policy Statement for Ofwat, recently laid in parliament, sets an expectation on water companies to make progressive reductions in the adverse impacts from storm overflows, including reducing their frequency and volume. The landmark Environment Act 2021 placed the ambition to progressively reduce the adverse impacts of sewage discharges on a statutory footing.
If water and sewerage companies are breaking the law, we will not hesitate to bring the strongest enforcement action. Since 2015 the Environment Agency (EA) has brought 49 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of over £137 million. Changes to sentencing guidelines in 2014 have allowed unlimited fines to be applied to sewerage companies in the event of serious pollution incidents, along with a wider range of enforcement and sanctions.
Additionally, Ofwat, the economic regulator, imposed a £126 million penalty on Southern Water in 2019 because of regulatory failings. Through Ofwat’s regulatory framework, Ofwat can also challenge companies to improve performance and achieve outcomes in a way that delivers value for money. Ofwat can issue enforcement notices to direct specific actions, or fine companies up to 10% of their annual turnover – running to millions of pounds.
Storm overflows are a last resort in modern sewer design, but the age of our sewerage systems means their complete elimination would be extremely challenging and costly and require full separation of pipes across the country, alongside other additional infrastructure changes.
The recently published Storm Overflows Evidence Project considers a wider range of policies and scenarios to reduce storm overflows and was conducted by an independent consultant, Stantec, for Water UK as part of the Storm Overflows Taskforce. The publication can be found here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uplo… data/file/1030980/storm-overflows-evidence-project.pdf
The project’s initial cost estimates show that the lowest cost scenario, which would cost between £4 billion and £6 billion, would only achieve a spill limit of 40 spills per overflow per year nationally. This scenario would rely on solutions with high-carbon costs. The upper bound figure of £600 billion would be the cost of separating the combined sewer network. It is right that we consider the findings carefully to achieve the maximum benefits for the environment and human health whilst minimising the impact on the public’s water bills, as well as minimising the carbon emissions and the damage they do to our planet.
The EA chairs Chichester Council’s Water Quality Group, which helps inform the development of Chichester District’s Local Plan and take actions to enable its progress whilst managing the constraints on wastewater treatment capacity in the Chichester Local Plan area.
Two Position Statements have been issued in conjunction with Southern Water Services and Chichester District Council to limit the increase in flows to the sewer network and further protect the water environment. These relate to new housing development proposals in the Apuldrum Waste Water Treatment Works catchment (December 2018) and more recently the Thornham Waste Water Treatment Works catchment (November 2021).
The EA has recently issued a Statement of Common Ground (November 2021) with Southern Water Services to ensure that strategic planning decisions are being made across catchments and boundaries in conjunction with the Planning Authorities and Water Companies to protect and improve wastewater infrastructure and water quality in the Chichester Area. This is a very positive outcome and includes current controls and specific plans for improvement.
Regulation alone will only take us so far which is why a Harbour Summit Group has also been formed. This will ensure a joint strategy is in place to agree and take forward actions by all partners with roles and interests around the South Downs Harbours (including Chichester Harbour and Langstone Harbour). Representatives from the EA, District Councils, Southern Water, Natural England and others have met and agreed to work together to review the main issues and make plans to tackle these where appropriate. The latest meeting took place on 6 January 2022.
Water Company regulation remains a priority for the EA. All water companies have strict conditions around the discharge of effluent specified through their permits. The EA does everything it can with the legal powers and resources it has, to set protective permits and take action when companies fail to comply with measures designed to protect our inland and coastal waters.
The EA is committed to play its full part, in line with its statutory role and powers, to create a sustainable future for the Harbour and the catchments and communities that surround it.
There should be no doubt about the Government’s ambition and determination to tackle this issue. We fully recognise that the current failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges is unacceptable and that much more must be done to protect our rivers.
Thank you once again for taking the time to contact us about this important issue.
REBECCA POW MP