UK crackdown on raw sewage dumps a ‘significant shift’ in water sector

Out-Law News | 30 Aug 2022 | 9:19 am | 2 min. read

The UK government’s new plans to reduce the amount of untreated sewage dumped in England's rivers and coastal areas “represent a significant shift in the sector”, according to one legal expert.

When heavy rainfall threatens to overwhelm England’s largely combined sewerage system, which uses the same pipes to carry rainwater and sewage, water companies are allowed to use combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to release untreated sewage into rivers and seas. Discharges of untreated sewage after heavy rain earlier this month prompted pollution warnings at dozens of beaches.

The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan (57 pages / 611KB PDF) would force water companies to increase the capacity of their networks in order to greatly reduce the frequency of discharges. Water companies that fail to meet targets face fines and prosecutions.

Gordon McCreath of Pinsent Masons said: “The government’s plan is the single most significant intervention in the water industry for generations. Some of the steps referred to – such as the potential for prosecution of board members of water companies, for the removal of the automatic right to connect to the public sewer system and for water companies to be funded for green infrastructure solutions before their environmental outcomes are clear – represent a significant shift in the sector.”

McCreath Gordon

Gordon McCreath

Partner

The government’s plan is the single most significant intervention in the water industry for generations

The government’s plan would require water companies to invest £56 billion in updating the UK’s environmental infrastructure, with no impact on customer bills until 2025. According to an impact assessment carried out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the cost of the upgrades would see annual water bills, averaged over the whole period to 2050, eventually rise by £42 compared to current prices.

Under the proposals, water companies will have to prioritise storm overflows discharging into or near designated bathing waters by 2025 and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high priority nature sites. By 2050, this requirement will apply to all remaining storm overflows regardless of location. DEFRA rejected proposals to eliminate the use of CSOs entirely, stating that the possible engineering solutions were “not feasible, or within the public interest, due to the financial and environmental costs.”

Companies will be required to publish discharge information in “near real time” and ensure that their infrastructure keeps pace with increasing external pressures, such as urban growth. Ministers said they plan to review the new targets in 2027. Water companies have also pledged to go further than required by the targets, reducing the average annual frequency of storm overflows by up to 33%.

“DEFRA’s decision to reject the specific options for complete CSO elimination on the grounds of cost-benefit means that the precise capital works required will depend on the circumstances of each discharge.  Many other questions also remain, such as what will qualify as the ‘unusually heavy rainfall’ that will justify continued use of a CSO, and whether the definition will be kept constant. The government has also yet to set out what it will do at a systemic level, for example, to require appropriate steps at a building standards level,” McCreath said.

He added: “The problem is a complex one and the solution will need a lot more working out before we have a clearer picture of just how this will affect the industry, business and domestic customers and the environment. But these first steps show that the changes contemplated are dramatic.”

DEFRA’s announcement comes after the Environment Agency introduced new requirements on water companies to tackle sewage discharges, including greater transparency when reporting storm overflow data.