The featured image was raised at our recent “Levelling Up the Conversation” event in Taunton, Somerset. Many of the issues in this article were raised with the Environment Minister at the event, video linked at the bottom of this article.
The plan promises:
By 2035, the environmental impacts of 3,000 storm overflows (75%) affecting our most important protected sites will have been eliminated;
By 2035, there will be 70% fewer discharges into bathing waters –(using last years figures that would have equated to 4,620 fewer discharges into our bathing waters during the bathing season;)
By 2040, approximately 160,000 discharges, on average, will have been eliminated (40% of the total); and by 2050, approximately 320,000 discharges, on average, will have been eliminated (80% of the total).
The consultation outlines how water companies are expected to achieve these targets, including mapping their sewer networks, reducing surface water connections and engaging in long-term collaborative planning.
The Government notes in it’s announcement that “Complete separation of sewage and rainwater systems would remove the need for storm overflows, however this would cost between £350 billion and £600 billion. It would also cause significant disruption.”
Separating sewage from water people drink is one of the greatest public health triumphs of the last 200 years.The discharge of raw sewage, including from storm overflows into waters used by the public, should be an exceptionally rare event and we need to take action to reduce it substantially.
Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England
Between 2020 to 2025, water companies are investing £7.1 billion to protect and improve the environment. Of this, £3.1 billion is being invested specifically in storm overflow improvements. This includes £1.9 billion investment on the Thames Tideway Tunnel super sewer.
However at a recent event, Tessa Munt, former Liberal Democrat MP for Wells cast doubt on the water companies investments saying: “Wessex water… in the last 10 years up until 2019, £110 million went to their shareholders in dividends… they spent £9 million over those ten years on doing something about sewage pollution”.
The Government knows that it is vulnerable on this issue and that those affected are organised and vocal. It does not take many photos of sewage discharge to turn the stomach of the public and there’s a political story to be told about the privatisation of water companies and the profit they make versus the money invested in clean up.
What’s most obvious is the length of the timescales. All of the targets are for 2035 and beyond, well past the sell by dates of all political careers involved. The Government has set out in advance the reasons it has not suggested faster or more complete action citing costs and disruption as sewer systems are dug up.
It remains to be seen whether these plans will be seen as welcome action from a Government responding to public pressure or the start of a political running sore for this, and possibly future Governments.