Later on this evening, Members of Parliament will vote on amendments to the Environment Bill.
I am delighted that the Government has tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill to place a new direct legal duty on water companies to reduce the adverse impact of storm overflows. I fully support the amendment and will be voting in support of it later this evening.
The amendment places a new legal requirement on water companies to reduce the impact of sewage discharges on the environment and public health, the latter of which being new and important for example for wild swimmers or canoeists.
It further strengthens the Environment Bill, which already as drafted puts in place more protections against water pollution than ever before.
A number of constituents have contacted me about the amendment tabled by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords. I want to assure you that the Government’s amendment will deliver the same action as the amendment proposed by the Duke, namely reducing sewage discharges into our rivers, and indeed goes further, in integrating the new duty into the enforcement mechanism provided for in the Water Industry Act 1991.
Unlike the Duke’s amendment, which does not come with a plan or contain a workable enforcement mechanism for the new duty it seeks to create, the Government’s amendment docks into the enforcement mechanism in section 18 of the Water Industry Act 1991.
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.
It also dovetails with the existing provisions in the Environment Bill for each water company to produce a statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plan every five years, which will set out how such reduction in sewage discharges will be achieved and funded. There is also a power of direction for government to direct water companies in relation to actions in those plans if they are not good enough.
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.
Despite what some may claim, and however much we might all wish it to be the case, the truth is that we cannot transform a system which has operated since the Victorian Era overnight with a blanket ban on sewage discharges. Not only would this put people’s homes at risk of being flooded with sewage during times of heavy rain, it would also leave billpayers exposed to the costs of eliminating storm overflows, estimated to be well over £100bn.
To protect billpayers from disproportionate bill rises, the Government’s actions will ensure the onus is on the water companies to deliver the investment we need to see.
I am delighted to report that my colleague and Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne MP, who introduced the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill to Parliament and has been the foremost Parliamentary champion on this issue, is also supporting the Government’s amendment.
In addition to this important 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.
Taken together, the Environment Bill will ensure that there are stronger protections against water pollution than ever before, with 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.