Government Water Statement must overhaul ‘creaking and leaking’ sewage infrastructure

The Government’s Strategic Policy Statement (SPS) for water, laid before Parliament today (February 2nd), urges water companies to do more to protect the environment. But the Angling Trust has expressed concern that the guidance given to the water regulator OFWAT could fall well short of what will be needed to end the scandal of untreated sewage polluting the nation’s rivers.

The SPS claims to want to see “protecting the environment” placed at the heart of OFWAT’s strategic priorities and “urges” water companies “to do more…”

However, it fails to signal the need for the step change required in investment in outdated waste water infrastructure which has resulted in record levels of discharges in untreated sewage from facilities that can no longer meet demand. (400,000 times in 2020 – up from 293,000 in 2919).

Simply urging water companies to tackle pollution isn’t enough and leaves them far too much room for manoeuvre. The Angling Trust believes the Government should be demanding that water companies do more to protect the environment and this should become the number one priority for OFWAT over the next five years.

These were the conclusion of the Angling Trust, who along with Salmon & Trout Conservation, set out what was needed in a major report, Time to Fix the Broken Water Sector. (see key points below)

Martin Salter, Head of Policy at the Angling Trust, said:

“We were hoping for more than warm words in this water policy statement and a bit of restating the pollution monitoring provisions that are already in the Environment Act. This is the Government’s opportunity not just to will the end of pollution but to actually deliver the means by getting OFWAT to allow much needed investment to flow into England’s creaking and leaking waste water infrastructure.

“As our studies have shown, the absurdly low replacement rate of sewerage pipelines is resulting in more discharge of untreated sewage into rivers and coastal areas. Hardly surprising when pipes, designed for 50 to 100 years of service, are expected to last for 2,000 years.”

He added:

“Defra have themselves admitted that water industry investment has not kept pace with the increase in demand and the impacts of climate change. They said last January that ‘climate change has led to increased rainfall and water infrastructure has not kept pace with development growth over decades’. This SPS is a once in a five year opportunity to instruct the industry to put that right.”

Stuart Singleton-White, Head of Campaigns at the Angling Trust, said:

“If, as Minister Pow has stated, ‘water quality is an absolute priority’ then we’re going to need radical and rapid change in the management and governance of our water sector. The Government are, at last, beginning to see the connections between sewage pollution, the alarming consequences of agriculture pollution and run-off, the need for sustainable water abstraction, and the need to protect precious and unique habitats, like our chalk streams. This SPS is a chance to drive all these issues forward. It remains to be seen if it is strong enough to do so.”

Key Points from Time to Fix the Broken Water Sector:

  • Failure of OFWAT to take environmental issues seriously in the past.
  • A £10 billion investment funding gap over the last 10 years.
  • The declining condition of rivers and streams due to 400,000 extra sewage spills last year.
  • England has only one site on a river seeking to achieve ‘bathing water status’ compared to 32 in Germany, 76 in Poland and 420 in France.
  • The absurd expectation of a 2,000-year lifetime for sewage pipes and other infrastructure.
  • Failure to build any new reservoirs in the southeast despite a 3 million population increase and huge projected growth in house building.
  • That lack of investment in water supply has seen excessive groundwater abstraction drying up some chalk streams altogether and damaging many other rivers.
  • The impossibility of delivering commitments in the Government’s own 25 Year Environment Plan and our legal obligation under the Water Framework Directive.
  • Failure of both the Government and OFWAT to pay any heed to the promises in the 2011 water white paper or indeed the warnings from the National Infrastructure Commission and the National Audit Office about the pressing need for investment in water and sewerage systems to address the challenges of climate change and population growth.
  • The prospect of severe drought events causing parts of southern England to run out of water within 20 years.
  • That the consequences of failing to invest in water infrastructure will cost more in the long term – £40 billion versus £21 billion and thousands of jobs.

Time to Fix the Broken Water Sector report

Defra blog highlighting infrastructure problems

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