The Environment Bill underlines the UK Government’s commitment to tackling climate change and protecting and restoring our natural environment. It will ensure we deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country - transforming how we protect our natural environment, make better use of our resources and clean up our air and water.
UPDATE JANUARY 2023- VOTING TO STRENGTHEN FINES & SET LEGALLY BINDING ENVIRONMENTAL TARGETS FOR WATER COMPANIES
Following the announcement in 2022, Rebecca has voted with the Government to strengthen fines and set legally binding environmental targets for water companies that pollute our rivers and seas. The votes on 25 January 2023, were on the Environmental Targets (Water) (England) Regulations 2022 which put these measures into law. Fines for water companies who seriously breach rules will be increased 1,000 fold, from £250,000 to up to £250 million. Yet again, this recent vote in Parliament has been misreported and mispresented in the press and shared on social media. Rebecca absolutely did not vote to make it easier for companies to dump sewage in rivers- it is just the opposite.
Water companies will be required to take measures such as increasing the capacity of their networks and treating sewage before it is discharged, while massively reducing all discharges. In September 2022, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asked water company bosses to write to him with their plans to accelerate investment in infrastructure. Water companies are investing £3.1 billion to deliver 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025.
By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water and improve 75 per cent of overflows discharging to high-priority nature sites. By 2050, this will apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by our targets, regardless of location. Ministers will review the plan in 2027 to consider where we can go further, taking into account innovation and efficiencies.
Finally, water companies will be required to publish discharge information in near real-time as well and commit to tackling the root causes of the issue by improving surface water drainage. The plan also sets out Ministers’ wider expectations for the water industry, to ensure their infrastructure keeps pace with increasing external pressures, such as urban growth and climate change and to ensure our water supplies remain clean and secure for the future.
UPDATE NOVEMBER ’22 - FINES FOR WATER COMPANIES WILL BE RE-INVESTED INTO SCHEMES BENEFITTING OUR ENVIRONMENT
The Government has announced that fines for water companies that pollute our rivers and seas will be re-invested into schemes benefitting our natural environment to enhance nature, reduce pollution and protect wildlife.
Water company fines reached a record level last year and the volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is unacceptable. That is why the Government is making sure that fines for water companies that pollute our rivers and seas will be re-invested into schemes benefitting our environment. Penalties of over £141 million have been levied since 2015 and this announcement builds on our increase in the cap on fines along with new rules and robust targets requiring water companies to invest £56 billion into our water infrastructure – the largest investment in their history.
The Government will clamp down on illegal activity and where water companies do not step up, we will take robust action to improve public health, reduce pollution in rivers, and protect wildlife.
UPDATE OCTOBER ’22 - REMOVING THE £250,000 CAP FOR ENVIRONMENT AGENCY FINES
The Government has announced that the Environment Agency’s maximum fines for water companies that illegally release wastewater and sewage will be increasing from £250,000 to £250 million, to protect our water quality.
UPDATE AUGUST 22 – STORM OVERFLOWS DISCHARGE REDUCTION PLAN
Water companies will be required to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in their history of £56 billion over 25 years under the newly published Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.
This will revolutionise how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage and impose strict limits on when they can be used and act to completely end their environmental harm.
This Government is the first to instruct water companies that they must protect the environment and direct Ofwat to challenge their unacceptable behaviour. Whilst there is a desire to eliminate these entirely and immediately, as explained below, there is a balance to be struck and there would have to be an immediate rise in water bills of around £817 per household to pay for it.
In 2016, just 5% of storm overflow sites were monitored. But by the end of 2023, 100% of sites will be covered. This increased monitoring is already having an impact with the Environment Agency and Ofwat recently opening the largest criminal and civil investigations against water companies covering over 2,200 treatment works.
Under the Plan:
- By 2035 – The impact of 75% of discharges affecting our most important environmental sites will be eliminated. There will be a 70% reduction in discharges released into bathing waters.
- By 2040 – 160,000 discharges will have been eliminated.
- By 2050 – 320,000 discharges will have been eliminated.
These targets and progress will be reviewed in 2027 to assess if any more can be done, whilst considering the impact it is having on household bills.
The Environment Act 2021 also introduces legal targets on improved water quality and the current proposals for targets state that by 2037:
- The length of rivers and estuaries affected by chemicals from abandoned mines will be reduced by 50%.
- The nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture to the water environment will be reduced by 40%.
- Phosphorus loading from treated wastewater reduced by 80%.
- Use of water per person in England reduced by 20%.
The actions of this Government will deliver cleaner water, greater biodiversity and protect our environment for future generations.
Oct 2021 Vote on the Environment Bill
Yet again, recent votes in Parliament have been misreported and mispresented in the press and shared on social media. I absolutely did not vote to make it easier for companies to dump sewage in rivers.
The amendment that was rejected was an un-costed proposal to ban all storm overflows- when currently discharge is only allowed in an emergency to prevent flooding. While well-intentioned, this amendment could have caused sewage to be diverted into our streets and homes, instead of down waterways at times of high pressure on the system- such as flash flooding. Estimates suggest an immediate change would cost anywhere between £150 billion and £660 billion- a massive burden on the taxpayer! To put that huge number in perspective- £150 billion is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together, and £650 billion is well above what has been spent combatting the Coronavirus pandemic. Banning this practice overnight would be totally impractical and unaffordable.
Instead, I voted with the Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows, and help water companies to significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows.
Currently, the Environment Agency allows water utilities to use storm overflows to release sewage into rivers and streams after extreme weather events such as prolonged heavy rain. This protects properties from flooding and prevents sewage from backing up into streets and people homes.
The Government has amended the Environment Bill to help crack down on the pollution in our rivers, waterways and coastlines, to better tackle the harm caused by storm overflows, and I voted to include the following measures in the Environment Bill:
- a new duty on the Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and their adverse impact, and report to Parliament on progress.
- a requirement for the 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.
- 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.
The concerning issue of untreated sewage in our rivers demands action. The inclusion of these measures in the Environment Bill will ensure steps are taken to tackle unacceptable levels of pollution. While we cannot get rid of storm overflows overnight, we are working hard to accelerate progress in this area to protect our precious water environment and wildlife. I have every confidence that the provisions in this Bill will absolutely deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows and any suggestion to the contrary is both disingenuous and untrue.
There are significant penalties in place for offenders, and we’ve been clear that polluters must pay for the damage they do to the environment – which is why earlier this year Southern Water was handed a record-breaking £90m fine, and Thames Water was fined £4 million and £2.3 million for separate incidents. We will hold underperforming companies to account, including through the measures in the Environment Bill.
In addition to new legislation, the recently established Storm Overflows Taskforce has agreed to set a long term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows and has already taken steps to improve monitoring and transparency, which is crucial. The Storm Overflows Taskforce was set up in August 2020 to bring the government, water industry, regulators and environmental groups together to drive improvements in this area. Through the Taskforce, water companies have committed to increase the number of overflows they will improve over the next five years and earlier this year the Taskforce committed to a new long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows. Over 800 overflows will be investigated and nearly 800 improved between 2020 and 2025.
Separately, Ministers will also undertake a review of legislation that would require Sustainable Drainage Systems to be constructed to ministerial standards on new developments, reducing the pressure on the sewage system. Between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £7.1bn on environmental improvements in England. Of this, £3.1 billion will be invested in storm overflow improvements specifically.
The Government has also committed to reviewing the case for implementing Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 in England, which would set mandatory build standards for sustainable drainage schemes on new developments, and which many have called for. This action has the potential to markedly reduce quantities of water unnecessarily entering the sewerage system.
The Government’s amendment to the Environment Bill on storm overflows
The new amendment strengthens the Environment Bill to ensure water companies “must” secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows. In this legal drafting, the word “must” means that we are placing a direct legal duty on water companies to do this. Water companies will have a simple choice: reduce sewage discharges or face the consequences - that is, strong enforcement action. This enshrines our position in law, and follows the direction in the Government draft Strategic Policy Statement for Ofwat, published earlier this year, which makes clear that water companies must reduce storm overflows as a priority.
The Government’s amendment will ensure that water companies will have to take the necessary steps relative to the size of the problem and goes further by legally specifying that “adverse impacts” includes impacts both on the environment and on public health - for bathers, canoeists and so forth.
Claims that the Government’s amendment is weaker than that proposed by the Duke of Wellington is not true. The Government’s amendment will categorically reduce the amount of untreated sewage in our waters and means water companies must reduce the operation of storm overflows. Our version places an additional duty on water companies, bringing it under the Water Industry Act’s powerful enforcement mechanism.
The Lords’ amendment does not include a workable enforcement mechanism, and does not allow Ofwat to fine, direct or otherwise force companies to comply with this duty, whereas our amendment ensures the regulator Ofwat can enforce the new duty on companies. As well as this, our new enforcement body, the Office for Environmental Protection, will hold Ofwat, the Government and other regulators to account in matters of environmental law.
The Government amendment bolsters a raft of measures already being taken by the Government through the Environment Bill to deliver progressive reductions in the adverse impacts of storm overflows on the environment and public health.
Addressing storm overflows is only one part of the picture when it comes to improving water quality. In the early 1990s, just 28% of bathing waters met the highest standards in force at that time. We have seen major improvements in recent years- based on data from 2019, 98.3% of bathing waters now meet the minimum standard, with 93% reaching the highest standards of Excellent or Good. Over recent years, hundreds of projects have been completed to improve bathing water quality and successfully drive up standards. As well as this, around £25 billion has been invested to reduce pollution from sewage since water privatisation, covering improvements in sewage treatment and overflows.
The Environment Bill will also reform elements of abstraction licensing to ensure our rivers can better support precious marine life. The Bill enables the environmental regulator to propose the variation or revocation of abstraction licences without liability for compensation. It will also create a power to update the lists of substances and their respective standards which are potentially harmful to surface waters and groundwater. This will ensure regulations on water quality are keeping pace with scientific and technical knowledge.
The Government has recently announced that we have almost doubled funding for the Catchment Sensitive Farming programme with an additional £17m over the next three years. The new annual budget will be £30m, up from £16.6m in 2020 / 21. This includes allocating £1.2 million to the Environment Agency to significantly increase the number of inspectors visiting farmers to reduce diffuse water pollution, with 50 additional full-time employees recruited for inspections. Taking a catchment-wide approach to water management is vital in our more holistic approach to water management.
Over 3,000 hectares of new woodlands are set to be planted along England’s rivers and watercourses. Planting trees on and around riverbanks, or allowing them to grow naturally, can help to improve water quality by reducing the runoff of pollutants into rivers. And the Chalk Stream Restoration Group has just launched its restoration strategy for these precious habitats.