£10 Billion Investment In New National Overflows Plan
Water firms around England have issued an apology for not taking swift enough action to address the issue of sewage spills in the natural water environment, announcing this month (May 18th) that the largest ever investment – £10 billion – will be made in storm overflows as part of a new National Overflows Plan.
This £10 billion is more than triple current levels, with the aim being to enable the biggest modernisation of sewers since Victorian times and launch a new environmental hub in 2024 that will provide near real-time information on overflows, as well as information on the quality of rivers and coastal waters.
In all, three commitments have been included in the new plan:
Additional funding of £10 billion in this decade would more than triple and add to the £3.1 billion investment level set for 2020-2025. Pending regulatory approval, it’s expected that by 2030 sewage overflows will be slashed by up to 140,000 each year, compared to the levels seen in 2020.
Water companies also intend to install new systems that will hold rainwater surges that would otherwise overwhelm the system, increase sewage treatment work capacity to treat higher volumes of rainfall and sewage, replace concrete with ponds and grass to reduce surface water runoff, enlarge and improve the pipe network and treat overflow spills to reduce their environmental impact through the use of wetlands, reed beds and so on.
Water firms will come together to set up a new independently overseen National Environment Data Hub, which will provide the public with the latest information on how all 15,000 sewage overflows in England are operating.
It means that anyone at any time will be able to get national information within the hour on what’s happening, with the aim being to strengthen accountability and help people track the progress that is being made, as well as giving swimmers and others the information they need to enjoy the natural environment with confidence.
New bathing rivers
Up to 100 communities will be provided with support to protect their local rivers and other bodies of water, such as reservoirs and lakes, for swimming and recreational activities.
Every water company in England will also support the introduction of new river swimming areas by helping communities test the water, apply for legal protections and work with regulators to address local sources of pollution.
Furthermore, guidance will be developed to help support citizen scientists so they can better navigate what can be a difficult process.
Chair of Water UK Ruth Kelly commented on the news, saying: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry. More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.
“We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”
The announcement was welcomed by Philip Dunne, chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, describing this plan as promising in the fight to address poor water quality in England, as well as taking the essential steps required to improve the country’s ageing pipe network.
He did note, however, that the plan must now work to prioritise those locations that are most susceptible to damaging storm overflows and sewage spills, as well as those areas where improvement will be able to assist most in delivering nutrient neutrality.
“People are quite rightly sick and tired of the repeated reports of sewage flowing into our rivers and seas, and we must put a stop to it. Today’s initiatives, if delivered fully, could go a long way to addressing these understandable concerns and returning the country’s precious waterways to good health,” Mr Dunne went on to add.
While it is, of course, good news that the water industry now appears to be taking the issue of sewage overflows more seriously, the plans have drawn criticism from some quarters.
One of the biggest concerns seems to be that water bills will increase to help cover the costs of this new £10 billion investment.
In an interview with BBC Breakfast, reported on by Sky News, Water UK chair Ruth Kelly confirmed that modest increases to bills will be seen to pay for infrastructure upgrades, but added that over the last decade the majority of people have actually seen drops in their bills.
Furthermore, research indicates that people are prepared to pay more in order to deliver this kind of infrastructure.
In response to this, Feargal Sharkey – musician and clean river campaigner – described the announcement as “nothing to celebrate whatsoever”, questioning why water suppliers aren’t paying to resolve the situation themselves.
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, meanwhile, commented that Water UK’s apology and plans are insufficient, adding that the news “does nothing to match the billions water firms have paid out in dividends to overseas investors or stop their CEOs being handed multi-million pound bonuses”.
He went on to say that the current Conservative government has failed to prevent sewage discharges into waterways and that every representative MP now owes their constituents an apology “for voting against tougher action”.
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