River water quality has improved over the years but sewage discharge into rivers is unacceptable. I am glad that ministers have made it clear that sewage discharges from storm overflows must be reduced as a priority notwithstanding the age and condition of much of the infrastructure and the ever increasing burden on it. I have every confidence that the provisions in the Environment Bill will deliver reductions over time in the pollution caused by storm overflows.
Abuse aimed at a number of MPs who have supported ministers on the issue is unacceptable and I hope this account explains my thinking in the matter.
The Bill will require water companies to monitor the water quality impacts of their sewage discharges and to publish this information, with the Secretary of State able to make regulations in response. This will ensure water companies reduce sewage discharges that cause the most harm to the environment and public health. I understand that water companies will also need to publish near real-time information, within 1 hour, on when their storm overflows operate.
By September 2022 the Government will be required to produce a plan to reduce storm overflows and their harm as well as a report considering the costs and benefits of eliminating overflows entirely. I do not want to see alternative plans that involve diverting sewage overflows into river to low lying households. Those of us who have been on the receiving end of that know full well what that would mean. Separately, Ministers will undertake a review of legislation which would require Sustainable Drainage Systems to be constructed to ministerial standards on new developments. I know that this “blue-green” infrastructure can deliver a number of benefits; it can prevent water entering foul sewers, reduce surface flooding, improve biodiversity and improve associated carbon emissions.
I discover that between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £3.1 billion in storm overflow improvements. This includes £1.9bn on the Thames Tideway Tunnel super sewer, as well as £1.2bn of other investment throughout England. £144m is additional investment after a call to action from the Storm Overflows Taskforce. Finally, the draft Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat sets out for the first time how water companies are expected to take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows.
The Environment Agency has successfully taken out 47 prosecutions since 2015 for illegal discharges (ie outside permits) by water companies costing them £132 million. It is right to be robust with offending companies.
Finally, the amendment that has been rejected was uncosted and there was no impact assessment. However, it looks like the cost of it would be somewhere between £150-650 billion. For context, the lower figure is the same as the annual cost of schools, policing and defence put together. The sponsors gave no indication of where that cost would fall. I assume it would mean a massive hike in water bills.
I hope that helps to explain my thinking in preparing for the vote last week.