The government has been accused of going round in circles in its attempt to stop sewage pouring into England’s rivers and seaside.
The environment secretary Thérèse Coffey has ordered England’s water and sewerage companies to share a “clear plan” to reduce spills from every single storm overflow.
Pipes releasing into bathing waters and critical nature sites, as well as those discharging the most frequently, should be prioritised, the companies were told.
England’s 15,000 storm overflows allow excess waste and rainwater to spill out into rivers and the sea, usually during heavy storms, to prevent sewage from backing up into streets and homes.
But footage of prominent spills in places such as Cornwall and Essex last summer sparked widespread public outrage, with green Cornish waters turning a murky brown.
Campaigners called the new plans “lacklustre”, while a recent damning assessment of the government’s own environmental targets found “serious pollution incidents to water” had got worse.
Ms Coffey said: “People are concerned about the impacts of sewage entering our rivers and seas and I am crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable.
Storm overflows have existed for over a century in the nation’s sewers. Because they were built to carry waste and rainwater in the same pipe, sewers can overflow when it rains too much.
The environment department is also proposing higher penalties for polluters and new, immediate fines, because prosecution can take too long to reach a conclusion, it said.
It said that on the “on the upper limit of fines, all options – including £250m – remain on table”.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week denied reports that Ms Coffey was backing away from plans to dramatically increase the maximum from £250,000 to £250m.
Government accused of repeating past mistakes
But Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage said history was “farcically” repeating itself.
“Last year, the government ordered water companies to produce sewage action plans, and now similar lacklustre plans are being pitched as if new. We need action, not more plans,” said Izzy Ross, SAS campaigners manager.
The government’s “lack of backbone has let the polluters run wild”, she claimed, adding that it should facilitate the investment the sewage network needs, and ensure the resources are in place to “actually dish out these penalties”.
The environment secretary said the government was the first to require companies to start comprehensively monitoring spillage, but acknowledged “there is still significant work to do”.
In 2016, just 5% of discharges were monitored, rising to almost 90% in 2021, in the hopes of better understanding the problem.
Labour’s shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said the Conservatives had drawn up “yet another ‘improvement plan’ that allows water companies to mark their own homework and doesn’t deliver action”.
A Labour government would impose mandatory monitoring, introduce automatic fines for discharges, and ensure “water bosses are held to account for negligent behaviour”, he said.
Water companies said they support the new plans.
“Water companies wholeheartedly support the Government’s ambition and agree with the urgent need for action,” a spokesperson for industry body Water UK said.
The sector has also committed £56bn to “replumb England in one of the largest infrastructure programmes ever”, they said.
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