One of this country’s greatest unseen innovations came from the Victorians, in developing an underground sewage system to improve public health. Constructed mostly in the 19th century, regrettably, investment and regulation have since not kept pace with rises in the UK’s population and development.
For historic convenience, our surface water and foul water drains have normally ended up combined in the sewers. Therefore, when it rains, our sewers reach overcapacity and permission is granted to water companies to spill sewage directly into rivers, to avoid flooding people’s homes and businesses.
But with climate change increasing the impact of rainfall across the UK - the permitted exceptional overspills of untreated sewage from some 7,000 water treatment plants operated by the 10 water companies in England and Wales have become routine - effectively, they are licensed to spill.
Water companies admitted to 200,000 occasions in 2019 when sewage flowed directly into our rivers for 1.5m hours. Everyone knows this is a major cause of pollution and is damaging to aquatic species and human recreation in and around our rivers.
Landowners and managers with rivers flowing through their land will recognise this problem as it affects their enjoyment of the wonderful watercourses we have, including the virtually unique chalk rivers and aquifers.
This problem poses an increasing commercial impact if fishing and other recreation on our rivers become unhealthy or impossible. What is required is the political will to confront this and do something about it.
That is where my Private Member’s Bill comes in, which will raise awareness and sets out practical measures to start to address this pollution. Water companies and regulators, such as the Environment Agency and Ofwat, recognise there is a problem and growing consumer concern. Ministers in Defra have set up a Storm Overflows Task Force, partly in response to my upcoming bill, as well as plans for water quality targets under the Environment Bill, next due to enter the Lords.
My Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill is a real opportunity to start to sort out the sewers and fix the flushing habits of the nation so that we can create a human effluent system fit for the 21st century.
The CLA's Water Strategy
CLA Land Use Policy Adviser Alice Ritchie is currently working on a water strategy, which examines the whole water environment, and is due to be published in 2021.
She says: “The CLA is in full support of the end sewage pollution campaign, spearheaded by Philip Dunne MP. The scale of the pollution problem across England and Wales means that every sector, every individual and every business must take radical action to reduce what gets into our valued waterways.
"Farming and land use have a big role to play, but without water companies also stepping up and reducing the amount of sewage flowing into rivers and streams, it will be extremely hard for English and Welsh rivers to reverse the decline in water quality that has taken place in recent decades.
Over the course of 2020, the CLA has been developing a Water Strategy – a comprehensive look at the whole water environment, touching on abstraction, flood, drought and, of course, water quality. This will be published in early 2021 and will contain a series of resources and case studies to help landowners reduce their contribution to water pollution, but also demonstrate to government what needs to be done to ensure collaboration across sectors on this important issue.”
Work around water quality
Trade association Water UK, which represents the major water companies in the UK, says that while water quality has substantially improved over the years, more needs to be done and it is working with water companies to increase these efforts.
Peter Jenkins, Communications Director, says: “Water quality has substantially improved in the years since the privatisation of the water industry, particularly through the Water Industry Natural Environment Programme. This has helped 70% of English beaches achieve ‘excellent’ ratings, compared with less than a third 25 years ago.
"Additionally, serious pollution incidents have fallen 90% since the 1990s. However, there is more to be done, and we are redoubling our efforts.
“Water companies already work with landowners, for example, through catchment partnerships, to improve water quality and flood risk management, and we believe this collaborative approach is critical to delivering further environmental improvement. Companies are submitting Green Recovery project proposals to Defra that will deliver more nature-based treatment solutions like wetland creation.
"The Storm Overflows Taskforce – a partnership between industry, Defra, and regulators - will look to increase monitoring of and reduce long term reliance on storm overflows. Water companies have published Pollution Incident Reduction Plans and committed to a 90% reduction in serious pollutions by 2025, with many pledging to eliminate them all together. “Within the Sewers (Inland Waters) Bill, there are many measures for which the industry has been pushing for a long time, such as on Sustainable Drainage Systems, water efficiency labelling, tackling single-use plastics in sewers, and allowing investment in nature-based solutions, which is crucial to meeting our net zero 2030 commitment.”