England’s water and sewage companies have apologised for not acting quickly enough on sewage spills. To put things right, the industry plans to spend an extra £10bn over the next seven years to curb sewage spills through a National Overflows Plan.
In addition, a new national environmental hub with information on all 15,000 overflows in the country will increase transparency and allow the public to hold companies to account.
The industry’s plan includes three commitments.
Water companies will invest what is needed to deliver the ambition set out in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, including additional funding of £10bn this decade, more than tripling (and adding to) current levels of investment of £3.1bn 2020-25. If approved by regulators, they expect that, by 2030, this initial wave of investment will aim to cut sewage overflows by up to 140,000 each year compared to the level in 2020.
Water companies will aim to meet several challenges, including treating higher volumes of rainfall and sewage and improving the sewer network by enlarging and improving pipes.
A detailed National Overflows Plan will be published later this summer, explaining each company’s approach to improving its overflows. This will include when improvements can be expected and (as projects are developed) how they will be delivered and the expected results.
More transparency to improve accountability
Water and sewage companies will collaborate on creating, by this time next year, a new independently-overseen National Environment Data Hub to provide the public with up-to-date information on the operation of all 15,000 sewage overflows in England.
Supporting new bathing rivers
Water and sewage companies will help up to 100 communities interested in protecting rivers and other outdoor water areas (like lakes and reservoirs) for swimming and recreation. Each water and sewage company in England will also support the roll-out of new river swimming areas by providing help to up to 100 communities to test the water, draw up plans, apply for legal protection, and work with regulators to fix local sources of pollution.
But who will pay?
Initially, the water companies will provide the down payment to start the works, with companies like Thames Water using debt and equity capital markets. However, customers will repay that money through apparent “modest” bill increases. In a BBC Breakfast interview, Ruth Kelly, Chair of Water UK, said customers would be contributing for 50 years “or perhaps even longer, maybe up to 100 years”.
During 2022, the industry paid £1.4bn to shareholders.
Ms Kelly continued: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry. More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner, and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches. We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”
Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said: “People are quite rightly sick and tired of the repeated reports of sewage flowing into our rivers and seas, and we must put a stop to it. Today’s initiatives, if delivered fully, could go a long way to addressing these understandable concerns and returning the country’s precious waterways to good health.”