Sewage being released into our waterways is one of the issues I hear about most from constituents.
It’s no wonder. People don’t want to see our wonderful coasts and rivers polluted and want to see this problem fixed. I do too and hate the idea of sewage in the water when I swim in the sea with my daughters at Whitstable.
However, this issue is a lot more complicated than is often portrayed in the media.
That is why I have written this webpage to provide a deeper dive into water quality, sewage dumping and storm overflows. I have collected the most frequently asked questions by constituents and have answered them below.
I hope that you find it useful, and if there’s anything that I haven’t covered please get in touch and I will do my best to answer your questions.
- Why is sewage being released into our seas and rivers?
In this country we have something called combined sewers (see Question 3). This means that sometimes when it rains, we have too much wastewater travelling through our pipes.
This is happening more often in recent years because of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, and the growing area of hard surfaces like tarmac for water to run off.
When this happens, the only place for excess wastewater to go is either back up the pipes into people’s houses, or into the sea. Clearly neither of these are a good option, but I’m sure you can see why the sea is preferred over people’s homes.
These ‘storm overflows’ have always happened, they just used to happen less frequently than they do now, and the Government has been taking action to put an end to this practice.
- Why are sewage companies allowed to do this?
I want to start this answer by saying that I have never, nor will I ever vote to “allow” more sewage to be dumped into our rivers and seas. While some of my constituents may disagree with me about things, I hope no one seriously thinks I want sewage in our waters!
As I explained above, water companies release sewage in rivers and seas because otherwise it means pumping it back into people’s homes. You can’t simply vote to stop this.
The only way to prevent it is to invest huge sums in our water infrastructure and reduce water companies’ reliance on storm overflows. This is exactly what we’re doing (and I will set out more on this below), but much of our sewage system dates back to the Victorian era. This means that it’s a huge job to modernise it all, and like any big infrastructure project it can’t happen overnight.
- What are combined sewers and what have they got to do with dumping sewage in our sea and rivers?
Just under half of the sewers in England are combined sewers. This means that surface water like rainfall, and wastewater like sewage use the same pipes – and so when heavy rains come the system can simply become overwhelmed.
When they are too full to work properly the pipes would back up and the wastewater would shoot back up into people’s homes – if it weren’t for storm overflows. As the name suggests, these safety measures were put in place so that when a storm came and the pipes were overwhelmed, they overflowed to prevent them backing up – with the excess going into rivers or seas.
- Is the UK the only country to have storm overflows?
No, the UK is certainly not the only country with storm overflows.
There are 22,000 in the UK, and some 650,000 across Europe.
At the start of the century there was also an estimated 850 billion gallons of sewage released through storm overflows in the US each year.
- Why has this suddenly become an issue if we have had the same sewers since Victorian times?
As I mentioned above, this issue is being exacerbated by increasingly unpredictable weather patterns as a result of climate change.
It’s also being exacerbated by the ever-larger areas of hard surface in this country, and when I was Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, I actually commissioned a report on the impact of building and more people concreating over front and back gardens on rainwater runoff.
But it’s also the case that monitoring of storm overflows has improved hugely over the past decade.
In 2013 the then Minster for Natural Environment and Fisheries – Richard Benyon MP – called for 100% of storm overflows to be monitored in England and Wales by 2023. When this scheme started only 5% were monitored, and we’re on track to hit the 100% target by the end of the year.
This is one of the main points that’s often misrepresented. We never used to know when sewage was being dumped into the vast majority of our rivers and seas, but now we do.
- What is the Government doing to improve the situation?
Clearly, we all want this situation to improve, and eventually not to happen at all.
As I explained, the sheer scale of the issue and the costs involved with fixing it mean it can’t happen overnight – but we are taking unprecedented action to make water companies clean up their act as fast as possible.
Firstly, now that we’re doing all this monitoring, we can put in place much tougher regulations and penalties for companies breaking the rules.
We are introducing unlimited fines so that companies stop unnecessarily using these overflows and we are making sure that the money from these fines is used to protect the environment.
These are just some of the measures set out in our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.
Along with holding water companies to account, the plan also makes them deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history - £56 billion of investment over 25 years.
To put that in perspective, it’s nearly double the entire UK Defence Budget – and it’s 28 times the annual payments that water company shareholders have historically received according to research by the Guardian.
Speaking of these payments, the water regulator Ofwat has also changed the rules recently to link water company shareholder payments to environmental performance – so no improvement, no payment.
All this means that storm overflows becoming less and less frequent, and systems in place to punish anyone breaking the rules.
- Is the quality of water in this country decreasing?
It may surprise you to learn that 93% of UK bathing waters are rated good or excellent, which is exactly the same as the EU average.
The data shows that this Government has actually overseen a fantastic improvement in the quality of UK bathing waters. In fact, pollution into rivers from water industry discharges has declined by up to 70% since 1995.
A stat that often flies around on Twitter and in the press is that only 14% of the UK’s rivers meet ‘good’ ecological status which is down from 25% in according to standards set by the EU.
Whilst this might be true it is important to add context to these figures, in Germany only 8% of rivers meet this status and, in the Netherlands, this reduces even further to 4%. This is why we are working hard through the Plan for Water to improve this number.
- Would nationalising water resolve this issue?
Some people think that taking our water system into public ownership would be the best way to solve this issue.
The first problem with this is that taxpayers would have to first buy out the water company shareholders – something even the Labour Party have admitted would be far too expensive.
In addition, nationalising the water industry would not necessarily provide a solution to these issues. Scotland and Northern Ireland have publicly owned water systems, and are battling the same sewage discharge issues that we have in this country. Water leaks in both countries are also double those per head in England, and that’s in part because in England investment in the water system nearly doubled since privatisation in the late 1980s.
A far simpler way of solving this issue is for water companies to invest in preventing storm overflows, and that’s what we’re making them do.
- When can I expect to see this improve?
These problems can’t be solved overnight, and anyone saying otherwise isn’t being straight with you.
Water companies are facing the strictest targets on pollution from sewage ever under our new plan, and they will have to deliver their largest ever environmental infrastructure investment.
The plan also prioritises the protection of particularly important areas - including designated bathing waters and high priority ecological sites. This means the first wave of improvements will be some of the most important for people and wildlife – and should start to make a real difference soon.
And the government have always said that if at any point it looks like we can go faster, we will do so.
- How will this affect my water bills?
All this investment has to be paid for somehow.
Water companies get their income from you and me, their customers – and so it is the case that to make this investment may push water bills up. That’s another one of the reasons all this can’t happen overnight.
But we expect shareholders to share this burden, that’s why new rules have been put in place about water company dividends.
- Is there anything I can do myself to improve the situation?
It’s not just rainwater that causes overflows into our rivers and seas. Blockages in combined sewers have the exact same effect.
Wet wipes for example are one of the biggest causes of sewer blockages in the UK, and it’s so important that they are not flushed down toilets. Having a water butt in your garden is also a great way of managing rainwater runoff from hard surfaces.
Small changes like these aren’t going to solve the problem, but if we all make them then they’ll add up to a big difference.