Amidst several years of controversy and with a criminal investigation by the Environmental Agency ongoing, the UK government announced what it dubbed the largest infrastructure programme in the privatised water era and one of the largest since Victorian England.
The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan was first announced in August 2022, but 13 months later has been updated and expanded, with £4bn of extra investment beyond the £56bn already proposed for the water management scheme.
The proposal and their expansion are quite substantial and have quite far-reaching implications, but to understand what they are and why it has become such a contentious issue, it is important to understand what storm overflows are, how they are used and how they have been misused in recent years.
What is the plan?
The major water companies in charge of treating and supplying people and businesses in the UK with water are legally bound to drain their areas effectively and ensure that they are responsible in how they operate to avoid harming people, businesses and the natural environment.
The Discharge Reduction Plan is a set of targets expected of water companies to improve Britain’s water infrastructure, which is based on systems that have been widely used since the very start.
The plan itself consists of four major milestones:
- By 2025, storm overflow discharges need to be reduced by a quarter.
- By 2035, water companies will improve all overflow sites that discharge near places designated as bathing water, and three-quarters of overflows near “high-priority sites” will also be improved.
- By 2045, all remaining “high priority site” overflows will be improved.
- Finally, by 2050, storm overflow discharges will only be allowed in cases of especially heavy and unexpected rainfall or as a method to avoid other adverse harm to ecological systems.
The term “improving” is used several times and can seem particularly vague, but the accompanying documents describe improvement through several targets:
- Storm overflow discharges will only be allowed when there is proof that it will not have an ecological impact on the local area it is discharged into.
- Discharges must take measures to reduce harmful pathogens, either by reducing their usage to less than three per season or using disinfection methods.
- Limiting the number of rainfall events in which storm overflows can be used.
- Using screening controls to reduce the discharge of solids and inorganic material.
These proposals are set to be met through a combination of infrastructure improvements, improved governance and a refined strategy, with a review planned for 2027.
As well as this, the plan will explore the possibility of eradicating the storm overflow system as part of the report although it ultimately concluded that this could require as much as £600bn of additional investment, and frames the infrastructure improvements as a compromise.
The plan was challenged by the Marine Conservation Society as unlawful, which was rejected by the High Court, who argued that the case the MCS and WildFish had made that the plan endorsed the use of storm overflows unlawfully was a “misreading”.
The High Court ruling also claimed the plan went further than existing legislation would require, particularly through its numerical limit on the number of discharges that an overflow is allowed to make.
The direct impact is that the average annual water bill will increase to pay for infrastructure upgrades, starting with a £13 average increase between 2025 and 2030 and culminating in a real terms increase of £45.
Increases to water bills are not desirable when cost of living pressures are already at the forefront of people’s minds, but these improvements and much stricter enforcement of ecological regulations have become something of a necessity thanks to the actions of the last few years.
Why are storm overflow discharges so controversial?
The storm overflow discharge system is a historic system of water management that dates as far back as the first water infrastructure in the United Kingdom.
Effectively they are the sewage equivalent of pressure valves in the combined sewer system we have, ensuring that the sewers do not get overloaded and thus back up into streets, bathrooms and places of business.
This is not only deeply unpleasant but a potential biohazard, which almost invariably leads to a halt or slowdown in business if it happens in an office.
The storm overflows redirect excess sewage water, diluted by rainwater, into bodies of water such as the sea, rivers or lakes.
When used appropriately and functioning properly, the storm overflow discharge system is seen as a necessary evil; whilst discharging raw sewage into natural bodies of water has a range of environmental and public health implications, it is seen as less harmful than sewage flooding in the streets.
With that in mind, they were only ever designed to be used occasionally as an option of last resort, with the heavy rainfall diluting the potential effects.
There are specific overflow levels stipulated on Environment Agency permits that highlight when it can be used, but there have been an alarming number of cases where wastewater appears to have been discharged earlier than allowed.
In 2021, nine out of ten of the 15,000 overflows in England discharged at least once, with a BBC investigation suggesting that in 2022 there were 388 instances in three regions alone where the overflows were discharged on a day when it was not raining.
In fact, according to the BBC, some of these “dry spills” took place on drought days when there was a distinct lack of water, something Environment Secretary Therese Coffey conceded was “extraordinary”
This is where the most harm is caused, as high concentrations of undiluted raw sewage enter waterways and create devastating levels of pollution.
This can have devastating ramifications on natural habitats, as well as the plants and animals that rely on this water.
This is illegal even under the current rules and is subject to a wide-reaching Environment Agency investigation, although the government’s proposals are not expected to have an effect on this investigation.
An investigation by Ofwat found that water companies were required to pay back £114m to customers in the form of lower bills, but the intention of these new plans is to turn round what has become a blemish for the water companies.