Environmental Policy News

English Water Companies’ World-Leading Plan to Remove Millions of Spills from Rivers and Coasts

English water companies have today published a comprehensive plan to remove 150,000 annual sewage spills by 2030, making nearly 9,000 storm overflow improvements.

If approved by Ofwat, the plan would deliver the most significant storm overflows program in the world and would see all 14,187 overflows in England meet or exceed every Government target.

Over the next five years, water companies are proposing to invest more than £10 billion just on storm overflow improvements, triple the current level of investment. More than 150,000 spills each year would be eliminated by 2030 and more than double this (325,000) by 2050. Over the life of the plan, more than four million spills into our rivers and seas would be prevented.

The plan would deliver an almost two-thirds reduction in spills near bathing areas by 2030 and a close to 80% reduction by 2050. In some areas spills would be cut by significantly more: for example, Barnstaple Bay would see spill reductions of over 90% by 2030, while spills in North Cornwall would reduce by 83%.

Some of the country’s most iconic river basins would see a dramatic reduction in the number of storm overflow spills by 2050, including:

  • 85% reduction for the Solway Tweed
  • 84% reduction for the Northwest river basin
  • 77% reduction for the Severn
  • 75% reduction for the Humber

In another world first, Water UK has published an interactive map allowing anyone to find out what action is proposed for their local storm overflow. The results of each improvement are shown on the map along with the projected reduction in spill numbers.

The plan includes thousands of large new storm tanks, often built underground, to hold rainwater while around a quarter of improvements would be ‘nature-based’, including upgrades like wetlands and sustainable drainage schemes. These projects reduce use of ‘concrete-based’ infrastructure and bring additional benefits for habitats, communities and wildlife.

This plan is subject to scrutiny and agreement by the regulators and the UK Government.

Government commitments

Water UK is calling on the UK Government to move swiftly on its previous commitments that could accelerate progress at no additional cost to taxpayers. These policies have previously been announced and are yet to be delivered:

  1. A review of the Bathing Water Regulations 2013.
  2. An ending to the automatic right of housing developers to connect to overloaded sewers.
  3. To assess giving water companies the right to repair defective drains on private property.
  4. A ban on the manufacture and sale of plastic wet wipes.
  5. The use of fines to improve the environment.
  6. An assessment of the role of highway drainage as a source of environmental harm.
  7. To assess giving water companies the right to improve drainage systems on private property to reduce impermeable areas connected to the combined sewer network.
  8. To assess giving water companies the right to discharge clean rainwater back into water courses.
  9. Consult on making water companies statutory consultees on planning applications.
  10. Ending operator self-monitoring.

David Henderson, Water UK Chief Executive, said:

“This the first plan in the world to set out such a detailed and expansive program for upgrading overflows right across the country. In just five years, it cuts annual spills into rivers and coasts by 150,000. Our plan halves spills into the most sensitive areas, such as chalk streams, and cuts spills by nearly two-thirds into bathing areas.

“The regulator Ofwat must now back these transformative plans. We also call on the government to deliver the ten commitments it has previously made, each of which is critical for delivering further reductions in overflows.”

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