The Government has announced that a new amendment will be tabled to the Environment Bill, enshrining in law a duty on water companies to secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.
The new amendment will further strengthen the Environment Bill, which already as drafted puts in place more protections against water pollution than ever before.
This is a significant step forward in our campaign to improve the health of our local rivers.
Earlier this summer, the Government published a new set of strategic policy priorities for Ofwat and the water companies, stating that they must take steps to significantly reduce the discharge of sewage from storm overflows in the next pricing review. This new amendment will make the Government’s position unequivocal in law, further helping to drive action from the water industry.
While similar to the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, which was debated in the House of Commons last week, the new amendment ensures that billpayers will not be exposed to the costs (estimated to be over £150bn) of eliminating storm overflows but instead puts the onus on water companies to deliver a progressive reduction in harm caused by storm overflows. Unlike the Duke’s amendment, the new amendment balances the need for investment with the need to protect customers from disproportionate price hikes.
The Duke’s amendment also did not come with a plan or contain a workable enforcement mechanism for the new duty it sought to create. The Government’s new amendment, however, will dock into the enforcement mechanism in section 18 of the Water Industry Act 1991, which includes the ability for Ofwat to issue enforcement notices for breaches of licence conditions. This is a critical part of the new amendment. The new amendment will also integrate with other legislation, including new measures in the Environment Bill, and aligns with the draft Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat.
So this is a sensible and effective amendment which the whole House can get behind.
This is all building towards the Government’s ambition to end pollution from storm overflows, transforming our sewerage system which has been in operation since the Victorian Era.
To help deliver this ambition, and in addition to this new legal duty on water companies, the Environment Bill includes the following:
- a new duty on 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 government to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, including a full analysis of the costs and benefits of those actions. Both publications are required before September next year.
- a new duty directly on water companies to publish near real time information - within one hour- 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 period to reduce storm overflows.
- a power of direction for the government to direct water companies in relation to the actions in these Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans if they are not good enough.
Outside of the Bill, the Government is also taking significant action, such as undertaking a review of setting mandatory build standards for sustainable drainage schemes on new developments.
There is also the aforementioned Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat which, for the first time, sees government telling the water industry’s financial regulator that it expects water companies to take steps to “significantly reduce storm overflows”, and that it expects funding to be approved for them to do so. This is a very powerful tool for the Government to drive action from water companies, as it strongly influences investment decisions and financial assessment.
I do hope the above update comes as welcome news and reassures you that decisive legislative action is being taken to end harm from storm overflows and protect the health of our rivers.
Please be assured that I will continue to drive progress locally and nationally, ensuring that Thames Water are held to account and that everyone in West Oxfordshire can enjoy clean and healthy waterways.
Robert Courts MP