Water companies must show ‘clear plan’ to cut sewage spills in rivers and seas, says Thérèse Coffey

The Environment Secretary is considering tougher fines and demanding every water and sewerage firm in England to provide improvement plans for storm outflows

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Water companies must explain why sewage spillages into rivers and seas are happening and share a “clear plan” for what is being done to fix them, under new government plans.

Thérèse Coffey is demanding that water and sewerage firms in England share an improvement plan for every storm outflow - with firms dumping waste into swimming, shellfish, and nature sites on top priority to provide these details.

The Environment Secretary is also consulting on making it easier and quicker to fine polluting companies. It will mean firms are made to pay immediately rather than wait for lengthy criminal prosecutions to be finalised.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week denied reports that Coffey was backing away from plans to dramatically increase the maximum from £250,000 to £250 million.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that on the “on the upper limit of fines, all options - including £250 million - remain on table”. A consultation will be held on changes to the penalty cap in the spring.

Izzy Ross, Campaigns Manager at Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), told NationalWorld the government needs to “ensure the regulatory framework and resources are in place to actually dish out these penalties.”

‘This is not a new problem’

Coffey said she is “demanding every company to come back to me with a clear plan for what they are doing on every storm overflow, prioritising those near sites where people swim and our most precious habitats.”

Defra added companies will be asked in the coming months to return their plans on the most leaky storm overflows.

Coffey said: “People are concerned about the impacts of sewage entering our rivers and seas and I am crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable. We need to be clear that this is not a new problem.

“Storm overflows have existed for over a century. The law has always allowed for discharges, subject to regulation.”

She added: “That is how our Victorian sewers are built – wastewater and rain are carried in the same pipe. When it reaches a certain height it pours into another pipe and into rivers.

“And while we have done more about it than any other government – we were the first government to require companies to start comprehensively monitoring spillage so that we could see what was actually going on – there is still significant work to do”.

‘Time to end the fuge and get real’

Labour has poured doubt on the effectiveness of the government’s proposals. Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said: “If Therese Coffey really wanted to clean up the Tory sewage scandal, she would implement Labour’s robust approach, rather than yet another ‘improvement plan’ that allows water companies to mark their own homework and doesn’t deliver action.

“But Coffey has form, having been the Water Minister that presided over a new sewage dumping event every four minutes and rolled back action on water pollution.”

He added: “It’s time to end the fudge and get real. A Labour government will deliver mandatory monitoring of all sewage outlets, introduce automatic fines for discharges, and ensure that water bosses are held to account for negligent behaviour.”

Meanwhile, Ms Ross from SAS said: “History repeats itself. Farcically. Last year, the government ordered water companies to produce sewage action plans, and now similar lacklustre plans are being pitched as if new.

“We need action, not more plans. Our sewerage infrastructure is in desperate need of investment and an environment-first approach, but government’s lack of backbone has let the polluters run wild.”

She added the government “has made the right choice to u-turn on its plan to reduce the maximum fines faced by water companies” and “it’s about time the polluters faced proportionate consequences over their continued neglect of our waterways.”

Penelope Gane, Head of Practice at Fish Legal, added: “Defra should already know how water companies intend to reduce sewage discharges.  Coffey took commitments made by individual water companies and incorporated them into the Government’s Storm Overflow Reduction Plan targets.

“There must be some detail behind those targets, or were they just based on blind faith?”

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