Sewage spills in UK rivers ‘will take 25 years’ to fix and could add ‘hundreds’ to water bills, Coffey warns

The Environment Secretary said anyone who thinks the problem can be fixed overnight is “dishonest” and sewer network upgrades will “put hundreds on bills”

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Sewage being released into UK waterways “will take 25 years” to fix and anyone who thinks it can be fixed overnight is “dishonest”, the Environment Secretary has warned.

Therese Coffey said that the “public have quite rightly been horrified” by the scale of the problem but it will take until 2050 to put it right.

Any more rapid action to fix the sewage scandal would push water bills up by around £800 by 2049 and we would have to live with some pollution as only the most pristine waterways will reach the highest standard of ecological quality, she added.

Her comments come after it was revealed last week that water companies dumped sewage in rivers more than 300,000 times last year.

Speaking at an event at the London Wetland Centre on Tuesday (4 April) Coffey said: “The truth is that however much we all want to see this fixed yesterday, there is no way that we can stop pollution overnight. If there were, I would do it just as quickly - and without hesitation.

“And anyone who tells you that they can - or get £56 billion pounds of capital investment out the door and into improvements to infrastructure under twenty-five-years - is either detached from reality or being definitively dishonest with the public.’

Coffey said that “wider upgrades of the sewer network” will lead to “destructive works on our streets” and “put hundreds of pounds on people’s bills.”

She also said that for rivers to reach the gold standard for ecological status it “would mean taking us back to the natural state of our rivers from the year 1840”, which is “not practical or desirable”.

Coffey’s Plan for Water sets out the actions to transform the management of the water system, clean up the water environment and create a sustainable supply of water for people, businesses and nature.

As part of the plan, the public is being called upon to cut their water consumption. Current water usage in the UK is 14 billion litres of water a day and demand is expected to increase by four billion litres of water a day by 2050.

Coffey is also demanding water companies reduce their leak rates to maintain the supply of water - and the public will be expected to do their bit as well by cutting the amount of water used from 140 litres per head of population each day to 110 litres, according to the plan.

Sewage spills in UK rivers ‘will take 25 years’ to fix, Coffey warns. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock) Sewage spills in UK rivers ‘will take 25 years’ to fix, Coffey warns. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)
Sewage spills in UK rivers ‘will take 25 years’ to fix, Coffey warns. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)

This will happen by encouraging water-saving features in newly built homes, fitting water metres and improving the water efficiency of showers and washing machines.

When asked how she will personally reduce her water usage she said she had a water metre installed which helped her to identify and fix a leak. She added: “We can be careful with hosepipes when washing the car”.

Elsewhere in the Plan for Water, the government has proposed a ban on plastics in wet wipes in England. However, critics pointed out this has been suggested by Defra twice previously in five years.

Steve Hynd, policy manager at the environmental charity City to Sea, said: “It’s disappointing that years after this consultation we’re still only hearing now an announcement for another consultation for a proposed ban on plastic-filled wet wipes.

“Plastic wet wipes cost hundreds of millions in sewage blockages each year and cause a catastrophic environmental problem, changing the shape of rivers and harming marine wildlife. While government drags its feet, supermarkets could and should take these from their shelves.”

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