18 MAY 2023


Water and sewage companies in England have apologised for not acting quickly enough on sewage spills - and have revealed a £10bn plan "to put things right". 

Water UK has admitted more should have been done to address spillages sooner and empathised with the public's "upset" about current water quality and the state of rivers and beaches.

At the same time, the organisation has revealed plans to make the largest ever investment in storm overflows, as part of a major programme to reduce spills into rivers and seas. 

In addition, Water UK says a new national environmental hub with information on all 15,000 overflows in the country will increase transparency and allow the public to hold companies to account. 

Ruth Kelly, chair of Water UK, 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. 

"We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right." 

Kelly admits the problem cannot be fixed overnight, but adds: "We are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”

The £10bn planned investment in a National Overflows Plan is more than triple current levels.

If the plan is approved by regulators, Water UK expects that, by 2030, sewage overflows could be cut by up to 140,000 each year compared to the level in 2020. 

This will kick-off the first wave of a massive transformation programme across 350,000 miles of sewer (a length that would stretch 14 times round the world).

Water UK says this will represent the biggest modernisation of sewers since the Victorian era, as "the most ambitious programme on sewage spills in the world".

A new Environmental hub, launching next year, will for the first time give everyone near real-time information on overflows, as well as the state of our rivers and coastal waters.

Companies will also support up to 100 communities to create new protected waters for swimming and recreation.

The water and sewage industry has made three key commitments as part of the plans: to accelerate progress, ensure more transparency to improve accountability and support new bathing rivers.

As part of the plans, water companies across the country will aim to install the equivalent of thousands of new Olympic swimming pools to hold surges in rainwater that would otherwise overload the system and increase the capacity of sewage treatment works, allowing them to treat higher volumes of rainfall and sewage.

Another aim for water companies is part of the plans is to replace concrete with grass and ponds to reduce rainfall run-off entering sewers, protecting them against the overloading that causes spills.

Water companies will also be expected to treat overflow spills so they have much less impact on the river, including through reed beds, wetlands and other nature-friendly projects.

The sewer network would also be improved as part of the plans, by enlarging and improving pipes, allowing them to safely carry more sewage during peak times, and fixing misconnected pipes from properties.

Water UK says a detailed National Overflows Plan will be published later this summer, explaining each company’s approach to improving their overflows. 

This will include when improvements can be expected, and (as projects are developed) how improvements will be delivered and the expected results. 

For the first time, communities across the country will be able to find out exactly when overflows in their area will be improved and be able to hold their water and sewerage company to account.

Earlier this month, Ofwat, the water regulator of England and Wales, set out new measures to issue penalties to companies that do not fully monitor their storm overflows.

All companies will have targets for reducing the average number of spills from storm overflows, and where they do not meet those targets, they will be subject to financial penalties. 

Where storm overflows do not have a working monitor, Ofwat will assume that spills from those overflows are twice as bad as the current average to push companies to make sure the monitors are working in the first place.

The storm overflows targets, which will form part of Ofwat’s Price Review for 2025 to 2030, will operate alongside other performance commitments which focus on the environment, including bathing water quality, river water quality and biodiversity. 

They will help to drive delivery of the UK Government’s Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan and the Welsh Government’s Storm Overflows Action Plan, and are consistent with the strategic priorities set by the UK and Welsh Governments for Ofwat.


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