I am glad that this is the first Government to set out expectations that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows.
The Environment Act will allow us to deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.
Let me be clear, the amount of sewage discharge by water companies into our rivers is not acceptable. We have made it clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority. If we do not start to see significant improvements, we will not hesitate to take action through a swathe of new measures directly on water companies in the Environment Act.
My colleagues and I did not vote to allow water companies to pump sewage into our rivers as some campaigns have caricatured in recent days. I actually voted in favour of a package of measures to reduce harms from storm overflows including:
- a new duty directly on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning horizon, including how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.
- a power of direction for the government to direct water companies in relation to the actions in these Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans. We will not hesitate to use this power of direction if plans are not good enough.
- a new duty on Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows
- a requirement for government to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions. Both publications are required before 1 September 2022.
- a new duty directly on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
- a new duty directly on water companies to publish near real time information on the operation of storm overflows.
- a new duty directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works.
In July of this year, the Government set out, for the first time ever, its expectation that Ofwat should incentivise water companies to invest to significantly reduce the use of storm overflows in the forthcoming pricing review period. Ofwat will be required to act in accordance with this expectation. This amendment will place this policy position in an additional clause in the Environment Act to underline the action the government is taking.
The reasons as to why we were unable to accept the Duke of Wellington’s well-intentioned amendment still stand. The complete elimination of discharges from storm overflows would be extremely challenging. Initial assessments suggest that total elimination would cost anywhere from £150 Action to £600 Action. This process could involve the complete separation of sewerage systems, leading to potentially significant disruption for homes, businesses and infrastructure across the country. Customer Act increases, potentially amounting to many hundreds of pounds, and other trade-offs against other water industry priorities would be unavoidable. We need to understand what such trade-offs might be.
The wide range of measures in the Environment Act, alongside the Government’s new amendment, makes this already landmark piece of legislation even more comprehensive and robust, and I hope this has provided you with reassurance that I as well as the Government are absolutely committed to tackling the adverse impact of storm overflows on our watercourses.