We provide here the Briefing for Members of Parliament and other interested persons about the Amendment to Clause 76, section 3, of the Environment bill 2019-2021 in order to remedy sewage pollution of sea bathing waters and rivers. This Briefing explains the nature of the amendment, the scope of the problem it addresses and how it solves the problem

Environment Bill 2019 – 2021.
Amendment to Section 76 to address Sewage Pollution of UK Rivers and Coastal Waters.

This Briefing covers the following points:
• The text of the proposed Amendment.
• The nature, causes and scale of the problem which the Amendment addresses.
• How the Amendment is able to address the problem and thus remedy it.

Text of the Proposed Amendment.

The amendment is to Part 5, Section 76, clause 3 of the Bill. The precise wording of the amendment and its position in clause 3 is set out below.

Proposed Amendment         PART 5
Text change in bold               WATER

Plans and proposals

76. Drainage and sewerage management plans.
In the Water Industry Act 1991, after section 94 insert—
“94A Drainage and sewerage management plans: preparation and review

(1) Each sewerage undertaker must prepare, publish and maintain a drainage and sewerage management plan.

(2) A drainage and sewerage management plan is a plan for how the sewerage undertaker will manage and develop its drainage system and sewerage system so as to be able, and continue to be able, to meet its obligations under this Part.

(3) A drainage and sewerage management plan must address in particular—
(a) the capacity of the undertaker’s drainage system and sewerage system,
(b) an assessment of the current and future demands on the undertaker’s drainage system and sewerage system,
(c) the resilience of the undertaker’s drainage system and sewerage system,
(d) the quality and impact of the discharges of the undertaker’s drainage system and sewerage system,
(e) the measures the undertaker intends to take or continue for the purpose in subsection (2),
(f) the likely sequence and timing for implementing those measures,
(g) relevant environmental risks and how those risks are to be mitigated, and
(h) any other matters specified by the Minister in directions.

The Nature of the Problem.

The problem is the widespread pollution of UK rivers and coastal waters, and specifically sea bathing waters, by poorly and untreated sewage; and, the absence of long-term management plans to address this. Sewage is host to a very broad spectrum of pathogenspathogens A virus, bacterium or parasite which causes disease is a pathogen. Disease causing pathogens live in the environment, and both humans and animals are hosts to them. Pathogenic viruses, bacteria and parasites are present in sewage, originating from humans and animals, and thus it is essential that sewage is given proper treatment in order to disable (kill) these pathogens before the end-products of sewage treatment (solids and water effluent) are returned to the environment. covering bacteria, viruses and parasites — in short, the range of diseases present in the population at large which find expression in bodily wastes (faeces), see footnote1. Fully treated sewage will neutralise (render non-infectious) all of these pathogens. Conversely, when sewage is untreated or poorly treated these pathogens are released alive into the aquatic environment where, by means of various vectors, they infect and release disease into the general population. Sea bathing waters and freshwater bathing areas contaminated by poorly or untreated sewage are considered to be a significant vector2.

In recent times, since early 2000, diseases resistant to antibiotic treatment have become a growing problem. They too are hosted in the general population, often not affecting the host (the person concerned) until that person’s general health is compromised in some way. Antibiotic-resistant diseases may be both dormant and active within the general population, and they are present in bodily wastes (faeces) and thus exposure to sewage contaminated water is a significant vector for their transmission2.

Outdoor bathing largely occurs in coastal waters and at seaside resorts. In England there are some 400 official sea bathing waters whose quality is monitored under the UK Bathing Water Regulations 20131. Bathing also occurs at other coastal locations and in inland rivers2 but such sites are not governed by the 2013 Regulations. In the case of official sea bathing waters, monitoring by the Environment Agency records that at least 1 in 3 bathing waters experiences sewage pollution during the summer bathing season, some seriously so3. In terms of comparative sea bathing water quality, the UK scores 25th out of 30 European countries (EU 2018 data) and due to discretionary, albeit entirely legal, monitoring procedures employed for English sea bathing waters (e.g. the exclusion of sewage pollution events from the quality data calculations) it is believed that this quality performance level may be even worse4. The net result is that although quality standards have risen in recent years, sewage pollution still remains very high and occurs nationwide.

The Cause of the Problem.

The cause of sewage pollution in rivers and coastal waters arises due to 2 main reasons. The first concerns the nature of the drainage system operated by the water companies, and the second concerns the level of treatment at their sewage works.

Drainage and the disposal of surface water, particularly that arising in urban areas (e.g. streets, roof guttering and paved areas) is, in the case of best practice, handled by dedicated surface water sewers which operate separately from foul water sewers. Surface water (largely rainfall) generally has a low pollution character, certainly in terms of pathogenpathogens A virus, bacterium or parasite which causes disease is a pathogen. Disease causing pathogens live in the environment, and both humans and animals are hosts to them. Pathogenic viruses, bacteria and parasites are present in sewage, originating from humans and animals, and thus it is essential that sewage is given proper treatment in order to disable (kill) these pathogens before the end-products of sewage treatment (solids and water effluent) are returned to the environment. contamination, and so can be discharged straight to a watercourse or the sea without any need for treatment. This ensures that the local sewage works is able to focus on foul water treatment and is not overloaded by additional input at times of rainfall.

However in many areas nationally the development of a dedicated surface water sewer network is limited which means that surface water is also handled by the foul sewer. Sewage treatment works are designed to deal with this feature of the urban drainage system by having an enlarged capacity, what is known as building the capacity to 3 or 4 times the dry day flow so that they can handle input under routine rainy conditions. However if the inflow of rainfall to the foul sewer exceeds the dry day flow capacity of the treatment works then the works has to operate an overflow system, discharging this excess load of rainfall mixed with untreated sewage to a river or the sea without any treatment. Under these circumstances rivers and bathing waters are polluted by raw sewage.

The other main factor governing levels of sewage pollution is the actual quality of the routine discharges of the sewage treatment works, regardless of rainfall levels. If the treatment process is only partial then the discharge to river and sea will contain pathogens. To avoid this, a sewage works needs to operate at a level known as ‘tertiary’ treatment where high level ultraviolet light or chemical treatment (chlorine) is used to ensure that all pathogens are neutralised. At the present time many sewage works do not have the capacity to provide tertiary treatment with the result that their routine everyday discharges to rivers and the sea contain pathogens.

In the case of the sewerage system, the solution is to ensure that all sewage works, inland and coastal, provide tertiary treatment. In the case of the drainage system and the avoidance of sewage works overflows, the solution is an adequate urban surface water sewer network. The management plans under Section 76 of this Bill need to address this.

The Scale of the Problem.

The scale of the problem in coastal waters is evident from the fact that at least 1 in 3 bathing waters are experiencing sewage pollution, some severely so. This is arising due to inadequacies in both the drainage and sewerage systems locally. In the case of rivers, the same characteristics in the adequacies of drainage and sewerage apply. However it is only recently that the scale of the problem in respect of the overflows of untreated sewage has been quantified nationally1. This study based on hitherto unreleased official data shows that water companies have released raw sewage into English rivers more than 200,000 times in 2019 and for more than 1.5 million hours. It is summarised in the table below7.

How this Amendment addresses and remedies the Problem.

Management Plans governing the drainage and sewerage systems of the water companies, as proposed by this Bill and directed by the Secretary of State, are an important new instrument for implementing H.M. Government’s 2018 declaration in its 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment which states that ‘it is this Government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.’8

The management plans for drainage and sewerage systems address (ref. clause 3) the capacity as well as the current and future demands on these systems, their resilience, the sequence and timing for the implementation of measures to meet obligations under the plans and evaluating environmental risks. However there is no specific duty upon a water company for its plan, nor specific requirement in the Secretary of State’s directions, to address the ‘quality and impact of the discharges’ from its drainage and sewerage systems. In other words there is no specific requirement which will, as a direct consequence, clearly lead to addressing the problem of sewage pollution. This Amendment will address and remedy that specific deficiency and thereby all the attendant health issues arising from it.

Accordingly a new sub-clause ‘(d)’ is proposed which will specifically require the management plans to address ‘the quality and impact of discharges of their drainage and sewerage systems’. Specifically including in the management plans the ‘quality and impact of discharges’ means that the presence of poorly and untreated sewage must be addressed.

The virtue of this Amendment is not solely that it creates a statutory duty both upon the water companies and in the hands of the Secretary of State to address ‘the quality and impact of discharges’. Its virtue also resides in that this obligation is measured, whilst being resolute in intent without being draconian. It insists upon action, but leaves the timeframe for action open. It will ensure that this serious problem is addressed, as public health necessities increasingly demand, but allows for a judiciously planned and funded approach.

It could be argued that the existing final sub-clause of clause 3 enables management plans to address the requirements of this Amendment by ‘any other matters specified by the Minister in directions’. This could be true. However it would mean that the requirement to address ‘the quality and impact of discharges’ in a water company’s management plan – and sewage pollution is a key aspect in the quality of these discharges – remains a wholly discretionary duty and power in the Bill, and not an obligatory one. Thus presently, there is no assurance within this Bill that this important issue of sewage pollution will be addressed.

This prospect is not considered to be a satisfactory state of affairs. This Amendment provides the opportunity to wholly address that deficiency by focused and judicious means.

It could also be argued that this Amendment has not been subject to a Financial Cost and Benefit Assessment. This is true. However the power which the Secretary of State will have to specify ‘any other matter in his/her directions’ will enable this Financial Assessment to be undertaken in the process of producing the management plan. This will enable the improvements to be fully financially assessed within a specific timeframe.

Without this amendment, this Bill runs the clear danger of allowing the water companies and the Minister to overlook the serious range of health and environmental problems due to sewage pollution. With this amendment, that concern reliably disappears.

For all the reasons outlined in this briefing, this Amendment is recommended.


1 Marinet: Sand, Sea and Sewage, Appendix D : Pathogens occurring in Sewage contaminated bathing waters – Note: These same pathogens will occur in sewage contaminated rivers. www.marinet.org.uk/campaign-article/sand-sea-and-sewage
2 WHO Recommendations on Bathing Water Directive 2006/7/EC
and University of Exeter Medical School : Exposure to and colonisation by antibiotic-resistant E Coli in UK coastal water users: Environmental surveillance, exposure assessment, and epidemiological study (Beach Bum Survey). Author: Anne Leonard et al. 2018. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412017312345.
3 UK Bathing Water Regulations 2013 www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2013/1675/contents/made.
4 See: The Outdoor Swimming Society, for example : www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com.
5 H.M.Government website with historic monitoring data and records www.gov.uk/government/collections/bathing-waters and Environment Agency website with detailed site by site records http://environment.data.gov.uk/bwq/profiles/.
6 See Marinet Sand, Sea and Sewage, Appendix A, Table F for the European-wide performance levels and the same Marinet report, section titled An Overview: English Bathing Water Quality and Associated Sewage Treatment Practices for an explanation of these discretionary monitoring practices www.marinet.org.uk/campaign-article/sand-sea-and-sewage.
7 The Guardian, Water firms discharged raw sewage into England’s rivers 200,000 times in 2019.
8 HMG 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment 2018 www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan.


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