I share the concerns of constituents about storm overflows and need no convincing as to the importance of ensuring clean and healthy rivers. This is something I have worked on since I was elected and currently have a joint campaign with Danny Kruger MP concerning the state of our chalk streams through which I have lobbied Thames Water and Ministers. In addition, I worked with the Lambourn community to secure a significant programme of work from Thames Water (I believe the most significant they had conducted for over a decade) to address and reduce this problem in the village. This work is now close to completion.
Therefore, the Lords amendment in question (section 141A of Amendment 45) concerning “storm overflows” is something I entirely agree with in principle.
The difficulty is that it came with no plan as to how the measures could be delivered and no impact assessment whatsoever. Initial estimates made by independent officials put the cost of complete elimination at approximately £150 billion. This is because it would require a transformation of the national sewage system, much of which was designed in the Victorian era, with significant disruption to homes and businesses across West Berkshire.
To put this figure into perspective, it is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together.
Signing this measure into law before a detailed plan and thorough impact assessment had been prepared would have amounted to signing a blank cheque on behalf of you – the bill payer -given the inevitable implications it would have for water bills. So, the vote against was not about the principle, it is about the mechanism for delivery.
There is so much that is positive in the Environment Bill to accelerate the process of cleaning up our waterways. And indeed, I was pleased to support other amendments in the Environment Bill which also went directly to the issue of storm overflows including:
- A legal duty on the Government to publish a plan no later than 1 September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows.
- A separate amendment placing a legal duty on Government to publish a report on the ‘mechanics’ of eliminating overflows entirely (which is also due before 1 September next year).
Both of these are essential to provide the public with up-front and comprehensive information on the cost and impact of eliminating storm overflows. Between the Government plan on storm overflows and the new elimination report, we will understand precisely how we can best tackle storm overflows and, most importantly, undertake the detailed practical work required to understand how we can deliver on these ambitions.
Other amendments in the Bill (which I supported) set out immediate action on this issue including:
- A new duty on water companies to publish near real time information (within 1 hour) of the commencement of an overflow, its location and when it ceases.
- A new duty on water companies and on the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis. This includes a Drainage and Sewerage Management Plan to show the improvements they will make to their networks and when, and specifically how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.
- A new duty on water companies to continuously monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow and of sewage disposal works.
Outside of the Bill, Ministers have made their expectations crystal clear in DEFRA’s draft Strategic Policy Statement to OFWAT. For the first time the Government will be telling the water industry’s financial regulator the steps that it expects water companies to be taking to “significantly reduce storm overflows” and that it expects funding to be approved for them to do so.
All of these measures are informed by the work of the Storm Overflows Task Force which was established in August 2020 by DEFRA with the specific objective of driving progress in reducing sewage discharges.
I hope this information is helpful and reassures you that any suggestion MPs are not taking firm action on storm overflows is untrue. Last week I voted on a range of immediate steps to address this, together with a legal and costed plan to reduce and eliminate storm overflows entirely.