The drive to clean up England's polluted waterways has finally stepped up a gear

After decades of inaction, regulators, water companies and central government appeared to have woken up to the pressing need to protect and restore England’s rivers, writes Philip Dunne MP

Regular BusinessGreen readers will be familiar with the shocking statistics around water quality: only 14 per cent of rivers in England can claim good ecological status; not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination. In 2021 alone, water companies discharged sewage into English rivers more than 370,000 times.

England’s rivers are in a dire state, and the dangers that lurk beneath pose threats to human and ecological health. A chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic is polluting our river systems.

For decades, successive governments, regulators and water companies have turned a blind eye and failed to rise to the challenge of cleaning up our waterways.

But having led campaigns in Parliament to clean up our rivers, I am persuaded that the tide is now on the turn.

Last week, the Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, published the government’s eagerly awaited response to our well received report from January, Water quality in rivers. We are inevitably disappointed that the government rejected some of our recommendations, most notably on pollution from intensive poultry farms. However, we were pleased to note that the government has agreed to implement around half of our recommendations in full and partially accepted many more.

It is right, therefore, to acknowledge at this seminal moment, the significant progress which has been made in the last couple of years, as a result of relentless campaigning by river users and parliamentarians in raising public awareness of these problems.

Ministers have clearly woken up to the scale of the challenge. The government’s response to our recommendations, and its new strategic policy statement for the industry regulator Outwat, shows a willingness to address public concern and require a positive change to the health of England’s rivers.

Much recent public focus has been around the extensive use of storm overflows, which should only ever have released wastewater into rivers during times of heavy rainfall. Time and again, the public availability of new data has shown that discharges are routinely being made during dry spells. Without the tireless data analysis by some highly committed campaigners, we would largely still be ignorant of the extent of these spillages beyond permits.

Our nineteenth-century sewerage systems are in need of urgent upgrade. As the population grows and housebuilding intensifies above ground, creaking Victorian pipes under the ground are facing increasing pressure. In far too many places, it is clear our drainage and water treatment are no longer fit for purpose facilities. The government accepted our committee’s recommendation to prioritise long term investment into treatment and drainage systems, paving the way for a major upgrade to a twenty-first century sewerage system.

Following my work with NGOs on the Private Members Bill I introduced two years ago, supported by backbenchers in both Houses, the government introduced amendments last year to the Landmark Environment Act, which now goes much further than any previous legislation in driving a clean-up of our waterways. It is now enshrined in law that water companies must progressively reduce the harm caused by sewage releases or risk enforcement action.

Water companies have a major role to play, particularly as they have presided over some appalling discharges of raw sewage in their catchment areas. But there is also progress being made here.

We hauled water company CEOs before the committee in October 2021, and were surprised at the lack of consistent reporting of water quality in their catchments. If the data is made publicly available, it’s often impenetrable, having not being of any real use to recreational river users who find themselves taking a gamble every time they enter the water.

Water companies have now committed to improve transparency around the industry’s use of storm overflows: a step change in the use of latest technology to monitor water quality in near real-time is now enshrined in legislation. Water companies are already trialling alternative devices in this summer bathing water season which began last week. Publication of the status of water quality in our rivers around discharge points will transform awareness of incidents by water companies themselves, as well as regulators, and more importantly give the public access to useful data to alert them to incidents when they occur. This will be good for securing public health, and also in prioritising areas for identifying locations where improvements need to be focused.

The Environment Agency also now appears to be holding water companies’ feet to the fire. It has launched an important investigation into alleged illegal permit breaches of discharge by every water company, highlighted by witnesses to our inquiry. In addition it is – in response to our report – now also reviewing how it audits the self-monitoring of wastewater treatment works by water companies.

And if the companies don’t clean up their act? Ofwat has written to the renumeration committees at each of the companies it regulates, stating clearly that they mustn’t be rewarded for bad behavior through executive pay and bonuses: a sentiment shared by our committee.

There will always be arguments that this progress is simply not enough. I have considerable sympathy with that view: the Environment Act does not contain all the provisions of my own Private Member’s Bill tabled in 2020. There are, for example, consultations under way to pick up some of the more specific measures to reduce blockages in our Drains, such as removing plastic from wet wipes and requiring fats, oils and greases to be collected at source rather than flushed into the drains.

But I believe it is right to acknowledge when clear signals of progress are being made, whether by central government, regulators or water companies themselves.

There is no silver bullet magically to cleanse all our waterways overnight. We will only ever make meaningful change if we influence government to change policy and pressure the industry to clean up their act: but we are getting there. Whitehall and boardrooms are in listening mode. The Environment Minister Rebecca Pow made this very clear in her speech to industry body Water UK at a reception I attended in Parliament last week.

If progress stalls, our committee will be the first to interrogate the blockage, so that our rivers, the arteries of nature, can start recovering and will thrive free from pollution once again.

 

Philip Dunne MP is Chairman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee

 

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