In remarkable recognition to the ingenuity of Victorian engineering, it is only recently that, due to our growing population and changing weather events, the storm overflow infrastructure is due an upgrade. No previous Government has taken on this challenge. The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, hastened into being by the 2021 Environment Act, outlines expectations that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows.
In August 2022, the Government launched the Plan which requires water companies to make their largest ever investment into water infrastructure – a £56 billion capital investment by 2050 with water companies investing £7.1 billion on environmental improvements in England Between 2020 and 2025. This will include:
• By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water; and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high priority nature sites.
• By 2050, all storm overflows covered by our targets will have to be improved.
It would be a significant challenge for any government to spend an estimated preliminary cost of anywhere between the suggested £150bn to £650bn necessary to transform the entire sewage system, but this Bill will give the best balance between managing costs for consumers and improving the system. To give some perspective, £150bn is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budget put together and £650bn is billions more than we have spent on supporting livelihoods and jobs throughout the pandemic. It would not be right to be burdening households with water bills rising at an immense scale.
These targets will be reviewed in 2027 to be brought forward if necessary. If it is possible to go further and faster while balancing the cost to consumers, the Government will not hesitate to do so. Since 2015, the Environment Agency have concluded 56 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies securing fines of over £141m.
The Bill now also now obliges water companies to monitor storm overflows, rising from 5% in 2016 to 100% cover by end of this year. There will be duties imposed directly on water companies to monitor the water quality impact up and downstream of all their assets and they will face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the harm any sewage discharge causes to the environment.
As a result of the data from increased monitoring, the regulators (the Environment Agency and Ofwat) have recently launched the largest ever criminal and civil investigations into sewage discharges, at over 2200 treatment works. Ofwat now have the capacity to fine companies up to 10% of annual turnover and the Environment Agency can seek criminal prosecution for which there can be unlimited fines. Fines levied against water companies will be ringfenced to fund environmental projects, and Defra is currently consulting on plans to raise the cap on fines and make it easier and quicker to issue fines where the threshold for criminal prosecution has not been met.
This will be the largest programme of work to tackle storm sewage discharges in history.