Business

Water firms apologise for sewage spills and splash £10bn to clean up their act

Water and sewage firms in England have issued a public apology for “not acting quickly enough” on spills – and vowed to spend £10bn to clean up their act.

Industry body Water UK said campaigners were “right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches” as it announced the package of investment on Thursday – which it claimed would be “the biggest modernisation of sewers since the Victorian era”.

Untreated sewage was pumped into England’s rivers and seas at least 301,091 times last year – an average of 824 a day – according to Environment Agency (EA) data.

That represented a fall of almost a fifth on 2021’s 372,533 spills, although the EA said that had been “largely down to dry weather, not water company action”.

A string of recent high-profile incidents, including a sewage discharge at a picturesque beach in Cornwall, have fuelled disgust over the issue.

It comes after the government unveiled plans last year requiring firms to invest £56bn in infrastructure to tackle spills by 2050.

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Huge sewage spill caught on camera in Cornwall

‘We are sorry’

Water UK’s chair Ruth Kelly said: “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.”

She added: “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 industry body, which represents all of Britain’s water and wastewater companies, said the cash was in addition to a previous commitment to invest £3.1bn between 2020 and 2025.

It said the extra £10bn will be spent this decade, with details published later this summer.

Water UK said the measures would include enlarging and improving pipes, as well as increasing the capacity of sewage treatment works, so that infrastructure can better cope with higher volumes of excess water.

Firms will further install the equivalent of thousands of Olympic-sized swimming pools to hold surges in rainwater – that would otherwise overload the system – and promised to treat overflow spills so that they have less impact on the environment.

A new National Environment Data Hub will also provide the public with near real-time information on all of England’s 15,000 sewage overflows for the first time, in order to “strengthen accountability, help the public to track progress and empower swimmers”.

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Sewage entered rivers and seas on average more than 800 times a day in England last year

Apology ‘needs to be turned into action’

Water UK said it hoped that the package, if approved by regulators, would cut sewage overflows by up to 140,000 each year, compared to 2020 levels.

It comes amid growing pressure on firms and the government to address pollution in rivers and seas.

In April Environment Secretary Therese Coffey announced proposals for firms to face unlimited fines for sewage dumping and for efforts to reduce storm overflows to be enshrined in law.

But the government rejected a Commons vote pushed by Labour, supported by the Liberal Democrats, calling for automatic fines for polluting firms.

Under current rules, water companies can discharge sewage from storm overflows, but only during periods of heavy rain and under strictly permitted conditions.

However, campaigners have accused firms of discharging much more often than they should – including when there has been no rain.

A spokesperson for Ofwat, the water regulator, said: “We welcome the apology from water companies and this now needs to be turned into action.

“We have been pushing water companies to do more, faster, for their customers and for our waterways and beaches.

“We look forward to seeing the plans and how companies will step up performance.”

Water minister Rebecca Pow said: “This apology by the water industry is not before time and I welcome it.

“The government has put the strictest targets ever on water companies to reduce sewage pollution and demanded that water companies deliver their largest ever infrastructure investment – £56bn.

“I am pleased that they are now taking action to deliver on this, but there is still a great deal more to do.”

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