Summary of Commons EAC Report on Water Quality in Rivers, 2022

We provide here a summary of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s report on Water Quality in Rivers in England, published January 2022. Our summary contains a critique by Marinet of the report’s strengths and weaknesses. This parliamentary report reveals very serious problems in the quality of our rivers and it examines the causes in depth.
Essential reading.




An Assessment of the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee report :

Water Quality in Rivers, January 2022

This report into Water Quality in Rivers by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is a wide ranging assessment of the quality of England’s rivers and a full reading is recommended, see There has been no other comparable study of this nature in recent time. Due to this fact it is important, firstly, that the findings of this study are widely known and, secondly, that this study is itself evaluated as to whether it has done a thorough job.
This therefore is the dual purpose of Marinet’s present summary — to inform you as succinctly and as accurately as a short précis can, and to explain to you where this House of Commons investigation has met its objectives of establishing the real nature of the problems facing our rivers, and where it has not.

Our summary of a report of 137 pages along with many supplementary pages of evidence from witnesses can inevitably only be a brief assessment. However it is designed to give you an insight into some of the significant findings and recommendations by the Committee for future action by government. Therefore to make our summary as practical as possible we have divided it into sections:
• The overall findings on water quality.
• The findings on the influence of agriculture on water quality.
• The findings on the influence of the water companies on water quality.
• The actions of the Environment Agency and regulators.
• The principal features in the Environment Act 2021 governing water quality.
• And accompanying certain of the above sections, some of the main recommendations made by the House of Commons Committee.

Incorporated within these main sections are the observations of Marinet where we believe these would be helpful. All quotes from the report are referenced to the page number in the Committee’s report from where they are sourced.



Marinet is an independent not-for-profit, membership based, limited company whose members work on a voluntary basis in order to promote the health of the sea and the character of the principal sources of influence on the health of the sea, e.g. river water quality. For further details about Marinet’s work see or contact Stephen Eades email hidden; JavaScript is required.


Preface to Marinet’s summary by our chairman, David Levy

An Overall Perspective on the Environment Audit Committee Report- Water Quality in Rivers 2022.
David Levy: Chair, Marinet Limited.

Although this Committee Report is a detailed and most welcome insight into the current situation surrounding the water quality of our rivers, it has pulled many of its punches as to the causes and solutions to that state of affairs.

It has to be said that, in the final analysis, it is an inadequate piece of governance because it fails to consider the full detail of the issues which have continuously, over recent years, caused these problems; and, in addition, has failed to fully consider the reasons which are now hindering the implementation of the solutions.

It is known that H. M. Treasury has issued a “hands off” embargo when it comes to looking at the water companies. This is because the Treasury regards it as a “blue chip” industry servicing major national pension funds, and alteration to this status quo will not readily be considered. The water industry’s ‘investment status’ explains the attitude of the Government which has consistently displayed a deep reluctance throughout the parliamentary passage of the Environment Bill in 2021 to all the amendments that have been proposed.

You will note that the Environmental Audit Committee report has a publication date dated after that of two major pieces of legislation: the Environment Act 2021 and the Agricultural Act 2020. Therefore it missed the opportunity to better inform politicians when they were considering these two laws. Once again, this feeling of missed opportunities prevails. If this timing is one of design, then that contributes to a conspiracy of inaction by all levels of Government. I suggest this must be considered when reviewing what can now be achieved in the near future. The trouble is that few people consider whether there exists a bureaucratic design to obfuscate reality.

Politicians such as Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Minister of State for the Environment at DEFRA) and Rebecca Pow MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment at DEFRA) insisted that they were in control of the legislation and were genuinely seeking an improved water quality outcome. When it came to voting in the Commons and the Lords they put the pressure on by personalising trust in them. Yet their actions were constantly obstructive, and they forced upon Parliament a ‘ping pong’ on amendments between the Lords and Commons. The outcome – the reality that pertains now – is that it is business as usual with no firm decisions on how to lessen the number of storm overflow incidents which are a major source of human sewage pollution. The trouble with this approach to the making of legislation is that Ministers are rarely accountable because they will, as often as not, no longer be in post when results start to come in.

Another important missing issue is the failure of national government, and thus Parliament, to confront local government who are often at the forefront of building governance. These local politicians are the deliverers of new builds, retro-fits and the essential need to divert run-off rain water away from the foul sewer. That this does not happen is because the law at national level has not addressed this situation. It is another example of ‘hands-off’ governance, yet it is a primary cause of the over-loading the water treatment system and its need to rely on the widespread use combined sewer overflowCSO The sewerage system generally carries surface water from rain falling on paved areas (roads, pavements, roofs, etc.) via a separate sewer from the sewer which carries foul water (sewage). Surface water sewers are generally low in contamination and are allowed to discharge direct to rivers and sea with no treatment, whereas foul sewers go to a sewage treatment works. When there is heavy or prolonged rainfall sewage treatment works may receive some of this rainwater and thus become overloaded. In these circumstances they need to overflow, discharging the overflow with little or no treatment. This overflow either goes direct to a river or the sea or, more commonly, into a surface water sewer which already connects with a river or the sea. This event, when a surface water sewer is compelled to accept poorly or untreated foul water, turns the surface water sewer into a combined sewer (surface and foul water) on account of the foul water sewer overflowing into it. When this happens the discharge from the surface water sewer is known as a ‘combined sewer overflow’. systems — CSOsCSO The sewerage system generally carries surface water from rain falling on paved areas (roads, pavements, roofs, etc.) via a separate sewer from the sewer which carries foul water (sewage). Surface water sewers are generally low in contamination and are allowed to discharge direct to rivers and sea with no treatment, whereas foul sewers go to a sewage treatment works. When there is heavy or prolonged rainfall sewage treatment works may receive some of this rainwater and thus become overloaded. In these circumstances they need to overflow, discharging the overflow with little or no treatment. This overflow either goes direct to a river or the sea or, more commonly, into a surface water sewer which already connects with a river or the sea. This event, when a surface water sewer is compelled to accept poorly or untreated foul water, turns the surface water sewer into a combined sewer (surface and foul water) on account of the foul water sewer overflowing into it. When this happens the discharge from the surface water sewer is known as a ‘combined sewer overflow’. (the cause of river pollution). Their elimination remains essentially unaddressed in the 2021 Environment Act, therefore the problem continues.

The public do not understand why laws are not immediately enforced, or why the process of change can be delayed for so many years. Unless this matter is reversed, then change will be slow and will never be fit for purpose within any near future timeframe. Again the politicians have avoided mentioning these facts of life, even when the situation is viewed with such abhorrence by the public. Urgency has not registered with those tasked with this public health matter.

When you come to look at the role of the environmental watchdogs what is clear is that Government, including the Environmental Audit Committee Members, have presided over the reduction of the budget for the principle regulatory authority — the Environment Agency. When two-thirds of the Environment Agency’s budget was axed over the last ten years, Parliament should have refused to vote for and implement this. Certainly you would have expected the Environment Agency’s CEO to fight for professional standards. No, not at all.

The actual enforcement record by this Agency has been pitiful and this has contributed to the overall decline of river water quality year on year. Yet it is certainly not clear, even post Environment Act 2021, what role the new Office of Environmental Protection is going to have in helping to enforce punishment of breaches in law with appropriate fines for the water companies which are found guilty. Once again it leaves you with a feeling that legislation, which determines monitoring and enforcement, is being done in an ad-hoc manner, with too many opportunities for things to deteriorate and fall through the cracks. So one must conclude that the reality is that these regulatory agencies, the Environment Agency and the new Office of Environmental Protection, have been designed to facilitate the industry and are not there to guide and enforce the law.

Public consultation procedures, set up in the name of democracy, are much vaunted by government and Departments of State such as DEFRA. They feature as another element in this complex system of deceit, and all those who participate in this process are either delusional or part of the problem.

In this band I place such Parliamentary Committees and their members who deliver reports which do not fit into legislative timetables. Also non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who have avoided confronting the solutions and, via this avoidance, have effectively worked against the delivery of solutions.

It is confrontational to address these Parliamentary bodies and these NGOs and their members in this manner, but absolutely essential to do so if things are to change in a timescale which is in any way commensurate with the urgent need to solve the problems that we face.

Parliamentarians have careers to ‘nurse’; and, those NGOs which have taken charitable status defraud their members by not revealing that they cannot confront Government because to do so is against their charitable charter.

These are the real facts which are infrequently revealed or discussed. But look at how little progress is made on environmental matters — then you can see the trap that they have fallen into.

Few realise this reality at present. That’s sad, but true. So when you read this précis by Marinet — which we have sought to make as even-handed as possible given the limitations of a précis (remember, you can always read the full report and its huge body of witness evidence yourself) — bear in mind that our system of governance on water quality in rivers has been failing us for a very long time. So do not just ask yourself to what degree is it failing, but also why?

That, I suggest to you, is the key question if we are ever to put matters right.


The Environmental Audit Committee’s broad-scale findings on Water Quality in Rivers:

○ “Not a single river received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.” (page 1)

○ “Only 14% of rivers in England can currently claim to have good ecological status. The Government is not on track to meet the Water Framework Directive — subsequently transposed into UK law — for all rivers to reach good ecological status by 2027.” (9)

○ “The three main drivers preventing water bodies achieving good ecological status are
◦ Agricultural pollution from rural areas (affecting 40% of water bodies)
◦ Sewage and wastewater (36%)
◦ Run off from towns, cities and transport, referred to as urban diffuse pollution (18%) — (page 11)

○ “Successive governments . . . . seem resigned to maintaining pre-Victorian practices of dumping sewage in rivers.” (2)

○ “Disturbing evidence suggests they [rivers] are becoming breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance.” (1)

Comment by Marinet: Since Victorian times, and before, England’s rivers have been the dumping ground of our society’s liquid wastes (e.g. human sewage, industrial pollutants) and by the 1970s when the Control of Pollution Act 1974 was introduced a very large number were in very poor condition, particularly where they ran through urban areas. Shortly after the 1974 Act the UK entered the European Economic Community (subsequently the European Union) and legislation from the EEC/EU, in conjunction with the 1974 Act, greatly improved water quality in rivers. However since the privatisation of the water companies in early the 1990s (1989 Act) and development of intensive methods of agriculture, both for cereal crops and livestock, the water companies and others have failed to invest in protecting the water quality of England’s rivers. This present House of Commons report is a testament to the consequences of this.


The Environmental Audit Committee’s findings on Agriculture

○ “Farm slurry and fertiliser run-off is choking our rivers with damaging algal blooms.” (1)

○ “Poor water quality in the River Wye has been linked to agricultural pollution from poultry farming [and] this was a focus of concern in a number of submissions to our inquiry. [. . .]The number of intensive poultry units in Herefordshire and Shropshire has increased significantly since 2000.

“The number of poultry sheds in Herefordshire and Shropshire has risen from about 600 in 2000 to over 1150 in 2020. For example, an additional 90 intensive poultry unit (IPU) ‘sheds’ were added to a plant in Hereford in 2014.

“According to the FFCC [the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission], newly-constructed sheds have nearly twice the capacity they had in the 1980s and 1990s: new sheds now hold over 50,000 birds.

“Over 150 new intensive poultry developments have been granted planning permission in Powys (in Wales) in the last five years, according to the citizen science volunteer campaign group the Friends of the Upper Wye (FOUW).

“Campaigners estimate that there are 20 million farmed birds on premises in the Wye catchment and millions more in neighbouring catchments, including the River Severn catchment.” (35/36)

○ “Salmon and Trout Conservation calculated that, at the current Environment Agency inspection rate, farms in England could expect to be inspected once every 263 years.” (45)


The Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations to Government on Agriculture:

○ “Each [river] catchment should have a nutrient budget calculated . . . New poultry farms should not be granted planning permission in catchments exceeding their nutrient budgets.” (4)

○ “We recommend DEFRA commission a periodic (five yearly) appraisal of catchment-wide nutrient flows across the major catchments in England . . . .such appraisals to be used by local authorities and planning authorities to inform decisions on new housing development and intensive livestock units . . .” (42)

○ “We further recommend that planning authorities in England establish a presumption against planning permission for new intensive poultry or other intensive livestock units where the proposed development would exceed the catchment’s nutrient budget.” (43)

○ “[We recommend] The Government should commission an independent evaluation of the potential risks to human health and the environment of spreading of sewage sludge, with all the pollutants it contains, on farmland.” (48)

○ “We recommend that the Government bring together farming groups and water companies to decide on a programme of action to reduce opportunities for resistance [antimicrobial resistance] to develop in the water environment . . . We welcome the Environment Act’s inclusion of a requirement on water companies to reduce the impact on public health of sewage discharges. We recommend that this includes consideration of antimicrobial resistance. (25)

○ “Pollution across river catchments must be progressively reduced from all sources in the catchment until it does not exceed the capacity of the land and the rivers to handle the nutrients. We therefore recommend that DEFRA direct the Environment Agency and Natural England to calculate nutrient budgets for each river catchment in England.” (117)

Comment by Marinet: All but 14% of rivers in England do not have good ecological status (i.e. life in them is struggling to exist or is greatly disrupted) and 100% of rivers are in poor chemical condition (i.e. have elevated levels of nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals which is a primary cause of their ecological disruption). This is a situation that is continuing to worsen rather than improve, despite government targets and declarations of intent assuring the opposite. So, to what degree is agriculture to blame for this?

The answer is substantially. The Environment Agency states that failure to meet good ecological status is primarily due to agriculture in around 40% of cases. What is going on here?

The answer, in very large part, is the growth in intensive cereal and livestock farming.

In the case of cereal farming artificial systems of fertility, based on nitrates and phosphates administered annually and a constant use pesticides to kill weeds, insects and fungal infestations, characterise much of cereal production in England today and is resulting in excess fertilisers and pesticides entering adjacent streams and brooks and from there onwards into the principal rivers, and then the sea. In addition, human sewage sludge (the solid residue from treatment of sewage at sewage treatment works) is spread on fields as a fertiliser and it too, in the form of its nitrogen, phosphorous and chemical contaminants, is similarly leaching into adjacent watercourses.

In the case of livestock farming, intensive methods have become widespread with animals, notably chickens for both meat and eggs and also pigs, are no longer raised at low density out of doors but rather are confined in high numbers during their entire lives within buildings where the use of pens and cages is widespread, thus increasing the prevalence of diseases so that antibiotic use is now routine throughout their life and within these systems. A typical poultry unit contains 40,000 birds or more.

The use of intensive livestock units for poultry and pigs, with dairy cattle also being increasingly farmed in this way, is a development that became established in earnest around the year 2000 and has accelerated greatly since. Around 80% of all poultry (meat and eggs), and the same with pigs, are now reared in this manner. Apart from ethical questions surrounding these developments and practices, two other important questions arise. First, how well is this system regulated? Second, what happens to the animal waste which it generates?

Evidence to the Commons Committee suggests that regulation is far from good. Any poultry unit below 40,000 birds does not require an Environmental Permit (environmental operating licence) from the Environment Agency and although it does require planning permission from the local planning authority, which is also responsible for keeping a ‘broad eye’ on its operation, there is little evidence that scrutiny by the local planning authority of this intensive livestock rearing system has any real measure of rigour. Local authority public health departments currently experience constrained budgets, and the Environment Agency rarely visits a farm to inspect matters – once in 263 years in national terms. [See the evidence in the film ‘Rivercide’, particularly from 20 minutes forward:

In respect of the animal waste from these livestock farms, most of this appears to be disposed of to land – although this is an area which was not clearly explored by the Commons Committee in its witness evidence or in its questioning of the Ministry for Agriculture (DEFRA) – despite a request made to the Committee by Marinet that this be done, see Of course this waste will contain not just chemical nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous) which may then leach into neighbouring watercourses, but it will also contain the residues of antibiotics and any 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. which have developed anti-biotic resistance (also known as anti-microbial resistance or AMR). In short, a lethal load as far as rivers and the wider environment is concerned.

It has been observed by the Committee, and in evidence to it, that the problem of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) is largely sourced from sewage treatment works (i.e. human over-use of antibiotics). However we would suggest that intensive livestock farming is a far more potent source, both because antibiotics are universally used in the form of a background regime within these units (thus affording enhanced opportunities for AMR to develop) and because these animal waste (unlike human sewage) receive no form of waste treatment in order to kill pathogens. Marinet presented evidence to the Committee, which was not responded to nor addressed to DEFRA by the Committee, on this issue of treatment of animal waste arising from intensive units; nor the fact that these pathogens can be readily neutralised if a regime of anaerobic digestion of this waste to temperature levels equivalent to pasteurisation levels (c. 70°C) is widely established. None of this appears to be the case at present. To establish the scale of this problem (i.e. how many animals are being reared in intensive livestock units) Marinet also presented evidence to the Committee for discussion with DEFRA over its impact on water quality in rivers, see This issue was largely unexamined.

Thus whilst the Committee received considerable evidence about the ‘nutrient budget’ of river catchments due to animal waste from intensive agriculture (livestock and cereal), and has made sound recommendations to government in this regard; and whilst it is clear that government (DEFRA and the Environment Agency) do scanty work on coming to grips with this issue, we remain seriously concerned that the full significance of the impact of agriculture in its intensive form is neither being assessed properly nor regulated properly, nor is subject to any plan of remediation. This being so, not only do we foresee the present problems persisting but also that these problems display a strong potential for worsening.

As a result we do not believe that the Committee or government has yet grasped the full reality or the potential adverse consequences which may arise.


The Environmental Audit Committee’s findings on the Water Companies

○ “The sewage system is overloaded and unable to cope with the increasing pressures of housing development . . . “ (2)

○ “The Environment Agency has issued permits for nearly 18,000 overflows on the sewerage network in England. These permits cover storm overflows at wastewater treatment works, emergency overflows that operate when there is equipment failure, and so-called combined sewer overflows (CSOs) elsewhere on the network. There are around 15,000 CSOs on the network in England, of which 13,350 discharge to rivers and streams.” (49)

○ “Monitoring of sewage spills from storm overflows and wastewater treatment plants has improved in recent years as Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) has been rolled out across 80% of outflows on the network since 2015. Between twelve and thirteen thousand of these monitors have been installed across the network, and installation across the network is due to be completed by 2023.

“Data from these monitors has begun to show how raw sewage mixed with rainwater or partially treated sewage is released to rivers hundreds of thousands of times a year*. . .” [*over 400,000 times in 2020, Environment Agency data] (14)

○ “Water companies monitor storm overflows using Event Duration Monitors (EDM) and in 2020 reported results to the Environment Agency for 13,102 storm overflows (discharging to all types of receiving water body) of which 9,250 discharge to inland rivers. The total number of spills monitored as discharging to inland rivers in 2020 was 342,346, with an average number of spills per overflow of 37.” (49, ref. 245: Storm Overflow Taskforce Evidence Project, report Nov. 2021, page 3.12)

○ “His analysis [Prof. Peter Hammond, evidence to EAC, ref: 270 ] led him to believe that the number of permit breaches by water companies was ‘an order of magnitude greater’ than those that are reported: “there are at least 10 times more such breaches of […] permits than the agency has identified and prosecuted.” Feargal Sharkey [evidence to EAC, ref: 271] observed that ‘the true extent of the problem may be biblical in proportion’.” (54)

Marinet comment: The figures for the number of storm overflows and the frequency with which they operate are extraordinary. They are so large that it is hard to comprehend the scale; and indeed the actual data appears difficult to calculate and for the authorities to be precise about. What is clear however is that a natural safety mechanism for any water system, an overflow, is being severely abused by the water industry, and these overflows are being used on a routine basis because the sewage treatment system is under-capacity and simply cannot handle the load. As a result, rivers and watercourses are being routinely polluted by foul water discharges instead of these discharges receiving the treatment which water companies are mandated, under law, to provide.

Recent evidence published by the Oxford Rivers Improvement Campaign (published in the Daily Telegraph, 22nd January 2022) has revealed that of the 90 sewage treatment works in the upper Thames, 46 do not have enough capacity to deal with the load presented to them. For example, Oxford’s sewage treatment works has 61% of the capacity it needs, Swindon 86% and Banbury just 43%. This evidence, not available to the Commons Committee due to its recent publication, explains why ‘storm’ overflows are being widely used and with such frequency. Quite simply, water companies are failing to invest in enlarging their sewage treatment works in order to accommodate an increasing load created by a growing population and new development.


The Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations to Government on the Water Companies

○ “The technology for continuous monitoring of water quality is evolving rapidly. We recommend that the Environment Agency invite manufacturers to submit products for evaluation . . . . We recommend that water companies take immediate steps to install volume monitors at all points where overflows may discharge from their sewerage networks, so as to provide continuous real-time monitoring of the volume of discharges consistent with the provisions of the Environment Act 2021. Drainage and sewerage management plans [required under Clause 79 of the 2021 Act] should include a clear plan for volume monitoring and a clear timetable for its implementation, and water companies should publish regular reports on progress towards full implementation.” (62)

○ “We note that the Environment Agency does not consider any use of storm overflows to be a pollution incident: discharges from overflows are classed as permitted discharges as long as they comply with the terms of the relevant permit. This is unlikely to incentivise overall reductions in discharges. We recommend that the Environment Agency reclassify significant sewage spills from storm overflows into watercourses in dry weather as pollution incidents, irrespective of permit compliance.” (68)

○ “We [EAC] recommend that the Environment Agency urgently review its practices in auditing the self-monitoring of wastewater treatment works by water companies. The Agency should also review its approach to enforcement and seek to reduce the interval between detection of permit breaches and prosecution.” (71)

“We [EAC] further recommend that, in the interests of promoting public confidence in the criminal justice system and reducing the likelihood of reoffending, the Sentencing Council review the sentencing guidelines for water pollution offences. In our view, penalties for such offences should be set at a level that will ensure that the relevant risk assessments are routinely on the agenda of the boards of each water company.” (71)

Marinet comment: There is an issue here which is unseen and unspoken about – the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’. The Committee neither addressed this issue in its recommendations, nor did it explore it in the evidence it sought from key players throughout its inquiry. This issue and the question associated to it is : does the current model and structure of the water industry, as well as for its regulators, need reform?

Marinet’s perception is: the present structure of the water companies as a privatised industry, supervised by regulators, is actually the cause of the problem. Therefore if this is so, is it nor simply foolhardy for Parliament to believe that radical improvement in river water quality will happen unless there is first more radical, structural reform of the industry itself?

None of this has been explored. Yet it is abundantly clear that the water industry is under-investing in its assets (sewage treatment work capacity, treatment levels, new and enlarged sewers, new storm overflow storage tanks). Why is this?

Before the industry was privatised in the early 1990s (1989 Act) the industry was making new investment in its infrastructure in order to conform with new UK and EU wastewater treatment standards. For 10 years after the 1989 Act some water companies were laggardly in their delivery on this investment (and had to be challenged by the public, working through the EU Commission and EU Court of Justice, in order to comply); but around the year 2000 arrived and since the focus of the industry has shifted away from this investment. The industry, with encouragement from H.M. Treasury, came to be seen as a ‘blue chip’ investment stock for UK pension funds and the industry diverted money from investment in the company itself into dividends. These dividend payments went to not just the UK pension funds but also other corporate owners of the water companies’ public stock, many of whom had an overseas character. Thus the water industry’s annual revenue has been milked for its dividends, rather than returned into the industry to improve and increase the efficiency of its assets.

As a result the standard of service provided by the industry has progressively declined. This is evidenced by the now routine overflow of raw sewage into rivers on a colossal scale affecting all corners of England, and made worse by a growing deficiency in the capacity of sewage treatment works to cope with new developments and the overall increase in the size of the national population. This has been exacerbated further by a financial neutering of the regulatory capacity of the principal regulator (Environment Agency) allied to the unwillingness of central government in England, even to this very day, to direct local government to ensure that surface water drainage arising from new development does not automatically enter into to the foul sewer, so adding to the overload.

Therefore the question must be: is the model we have for the water industry (the 1989 Act) still appropriate? If the answer to this question is no, and the water industry continues to haemorrhage financial resources as a result, and the regulator continues to experience a financial neutering, is it not clear that all the endeavours to secure real change via new clauses and laws in the Environment Act 2021 will come to nought because, to put it in blunt terms, the industry’s structure is irredeemably flawed and incapable of delivering reform?

This is the conclusion which Marinet is arriving at. Most regrettably because this constitutes a serious missed opportunity. It is a proposition that has not been explored at any stage in the Committee’s inquiry or indeed during the passage of the 2021 Environment Act, but it seems to us that it does in fact connect with the true reality. So if the structure of the industry is the elephant in the room, as we believe it is, are we not fooling ourselves about being able to improve the water quality in our rivers and seas any time soon, or even within the next twenty or thirty years? If you too concede that there may be a grain of truth in this supposition, then should we not be talking about it and addressing the outcome of that conversation and its conclusions?


The Environmental Audit Committee’s findings on the monitoring of overflow discharges

○ “We know nothing about pollution levels in CSOs. It is all very well monitoring their duration and the flow but, if you think about it, they combine raw sewage with what runs off from the urban environment. That is a huge chemical cocktail: faecal microbes, hydrocarbons, industrial chemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals, personal care products will be found in their flow. We know something about their impact on the aquatic environment but we know very little about their impact on human health if you ingest a big mouthful or two of that.” (page 14, ref. 37, evidence from Dr. Rob Collins, Head of Policy and Science, The Rivers Trust].

○ “Peter Lloyd [evidence to EAC page 59, ref. 298] argued that the Agency’s method of river quality monitoring was misleading, ineffective and a ‘waste of money.’ The existing system of surveillance monitoring of rivers and effluents consisted, he said, almost exclusively of taking small numbers of random individual samples during the working day, a method known as ‘spot sampling’. He told us:

“‘The problem is that the agency does monitor rivers and will monitor rivers downstream of sewage works, known problem areas, but will do it on a random basis. It will normally take one sample a month, say, but that sample will be taken randomly. The chances of that sample coinciding with a rainfall event [when sewage spills are more likely to occur] are very slim. It might be a one in-100 chance that any single sample will coincide with the sort of events that we need to know more about.’

“‘In many sewage works the effluent quality is worse out of hours, during the evening and overnight, yet the Environment Agency’s method of monitoring is random samples during working hours. They will never tell you the true quality of the effluent.’ ” (59)

○ “Several witnesses urged the introduction of continuous real time monitoring of water quality. Salmon and Trout Conservation observed that technological developments in monitoring meant that “continuous monitoring should now be both practical and affordable for the Environment Agency to use widely”, especially at potentially high-risk locations such as sewage treatment works. The Centre for Hydrology and Ecology concurred.” (60)

Marinet comment: The regime for the monitoring of discharges, and particularly of unscheduled overflows, appears to be very weak. It is weak not only in terms of recording the actual number of occurrences but also as to the exact nature and quality of the discharge. Thus the pollution load being placed on the rivers of England is being managed in a very haphazard manner. One might reasonably argue that this is a neglect of duty by the water companies, and by the regulators (Environment Agency and, ultimately, the Government and DEFRA).

It is true that the Environment Act 2021 now contains extensive legally enforceable provisions for improved standards of monitoring, as well as a legal duty on the water companies to bring about a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows. However the original draft of the Bill contained none of these provisions, and they only came to be included as a result of widespread and concerted lobbying by the public (with most MPs taking a back seat on the matter, especially when the Bill was first in the House of Commons). In a sense the eventual outcome shows that Parliament is responsive to ‘democratic influence’, but should this be the way in which our democracy and government designs new laws – laws only being delivered with any semblance of adequacy when the public becomes so incensed that their outrage cannot be ignored?

One of the provisions of the 2021 Act (Clause 81) is for the water companies to publish near real time information (within 1 hour) of the commencement of an overflow, along with its location and when the overflow ceases. Only once this happens will the public know whenever their river or watercourse is being polluted and for how long. Marinet has checked with the water companies (Letter to CEOs, 13th January 2022) how this information may now be accessed and the reply received, based on a statement by DEFRA, is that this aspect of the 2021 Act will require secondary legislation (a commencement order) before it becomes operative. This is not expected until sometime in 2023, according to the current water company view. Therefore we have a new law — or you think we do. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Is the neglect of duty by government of our rivers and their water quality about to be put right? It might be wise not to hold your breath.


The Environmental Audit Committee’s findings on the cost of eliminating storm overflows

○ “Increasing the capacity of storage tanks at sewerage treatment works is only part of the solution to deal with surges in water volumes. Sir James Bevan [CEO Environment Agency] suggested that in the longer term there needed to be a debate about “whether, and if so how, we want to remove the source of the problem, which is these, frankly, Victorian-era combined sewers, which combine sewage and rainwater. As long as we have that system, we are going to have overflow and there is a debate to be had about whether, and if so how, we want to replace those systems. We can do a lot in the short to medium term to get to a better place.”

“DEFRA told us at the outset of this inquiry that the cost of separating the country’s combined sewage system and widely preventing or reducing surface water entering the system was unknown.

“It has subsequently been estimated to cost more than £150 billion.

“A Storm Overflows Taskforce set up by Ministers commissioned research which suggested that the complete separation of the entire wastewater and stormwater network (eliminating the need for storm overflows altogether) would cost between £350 billion and £600 billion. The Environment Act 2021 requires Ministers to prepare a report by September 2022 on the actions required to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions.” (73)

○ “The Taskforce [Storm Overflows Taskforce] has (been) commissioned . . . to provide a more detailed understanding of the public’s priorities on the issue, and the costs and benefits of different policies and scenarios that respond to those priorities.

“Policies and scenarios include limiting the annual average number of spills (the spill frequency) of 13,350 storm overflows discharging into inland rivers in England to 40, 20, 10, 5 and 0 , as well as differentiating between universally applied national limits and more targeted ‘sensitive catchment’ ones. . . .” (49, ref. 245: Storm Overflow Taskforce Evidence Project, report Nov. 2021, page i)

○ “The complete separation of wastewater and stormwater systems (eliminating storm overflows) would cost between £350 billion and £600 billion. This could increase household bills between £569 and £999 per year and is also highly disruptive and complex to deliver nationwide.
◦ The costs of retaining storm overflows discharging to inland waters but limiting their operation vary widely depending on how frequently they operate. We have modelled nationally applied policies and scenarios costing between £5 billion (40 spills average) — £280 billion (0 spills average). The impact on annual household bills could be between £9 and £495 respectively. The ranges depend on how policies are delivered and reflect uncertainties.

◦ A refinement mixes the requirement for spill control depending on river type. A general limit of 40 spills on average per year, reduced to 10 spills in sensitive catchments would cost between £18 billion and £110 billion. The impact on annual household bills could be between £30 and £208 per year. This 40/10 spill policy is similar in cost and bill impact to the policy of 20 spills on average per year.

◦ A policy focused on achieving 10 spills per year on average in sensitive rivers (such as chalk streams) would cost between £16bn and £82bn. The impact on annual household bills could be between £26 and £150 respectively.

◦ A policy focused on achieving 10 spills per year on average in rivers where storm overflows are observed to be the reason for not achieving good ecological status would cost between £13bn and £59bn. The impact on annual household bills could be between £22 and £108 respectively.” (49, ref. 245: Storm Overflow Taskforce Evidence Project, report Nov. 2021, page ii)

○ “In Wales, Welsh Ministers have used their powers under Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 to end the automatic right of developments to connect to the sewer. Since January 2019, all construction work with drainage implications, of at least two properties or 100m² or more, is now required to have sustainable [urban] drainage systems [SuDS] to manage on-site surface water (whether they require planning permission or not).

“These SuDS must be designed and constructed in accordance with the Welsh Government Standards for Sustainable Drainage.

“Rebecca Pow MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told us that the Government was conducting a review [in England] of Schedule 3 to consider whether the [automatic] right to connect [to the sewer] should be made conditional on the approval of proposed sustainable urban drainage.
“She observed that ‘what you also have to consider is whether removing that right is a barrier to development.’ The review is expected to be completed by Autumn 2022.” (98)

Marinet comment: When we campaigned in summer 2021 amongst Peers in the House of Lords for an amendment of the Environment Bill to require a progressive, yearly, separation of surface water drainage away from the foul sewer and we secured the advancement of this proposal by the Duke of Wellington – to his very great credit – by means of an amendment to the Bill, there was initially strong support for it. Peers realised that this, and not just insufficient capacity at sewage treatment works, was at the heart of the problem. As long as we go on overloading the foul sewer with surface water drainage (rain water- which when draining off roads and other surfaces is not pure, but is not contaminated in the same way) then the foul sewer network will constantly overflow into rivers.

However when it came to the vote, the majority in support for this amendment was not there. Peers had been scared by the rumour that the cost could be £600 billion [more than the figure borrowed by the Government during the Covid pandemic, see and so declined to support this amendment.

How accurate is this figure of £600 billion?

As can be seen from the findings presented to the Commons Committee by the Storm Overflows Taskforce [established by DEFRA to look into this matter- their report is well worth reading, see the figure of £600 billion is an end of range figure which is not supported by any analytical evidence.

A more realistic figure from the Taskforce is £150 billion and, if more graduated and nuanced solutions to the problem are utilised, the figure is considerably less still. For example, as the Storm Overflows Taskforce states in its report: “A policy focused on achieving 10 spills per year on average in rivers where storm overflows are observed to be the reason for not achieving good ecological status would cost between £13bn and £59bn. The impact on annual household bills could be between £22 and £108 respectively.” (49, ref. 245: Storm Overflow Taskforce Evidence Project, report Nov. 2021, page ii)” Is this not a sound approach to the whole problem, enabling the rivers nationwide to stand a chance of achieving good ecological status wherever overflows are the cause of non-compliance, and at a cost which most households could probably afford if the investment required is introduced over a 10 year period? A maximum figure of £59 billion is very different from a maximum figure of £600 billion. One cannot help but conclude that the public and Peers were being misled by the Government and DEFRA when Peers debated the Duke of Wellington’s original amendment in the autumn of 2021 asking for separation of surface water drainage away from the foul sewer; and, it is to be noted, the water companies themselves remained silent.

Thus one suspects that the Government and DEFRA set a rumour running to avoid taking on a seriously focused amendment to tackle this problem of surface water drainage. If this was so, they succeeded.

Where does this leave us?

Reform could begin with a minimum first proposal: the problem of flooding of the foul sewer with surface water drainage from new development (housing and business parks) would be eliminated if new development were no longer allowed an automatic right to connect to the foul sewer and instead had to pursue alternative arrangements. This now happens in Wales and has done so in Scotland for a very long time. There are provisions in the 2021 Act to facilitate sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) but, once again, these will come to nought unless the government and DEFRA enforce their implementation – a commitment which the DEFRA Minister in her evidence to the Commons Committee was not prepared to give. This would cost existing householders nothing in their water charges.

Looking deeper into the reform process: progress has been made via the 2021 Act to establish specific legal instruments for tackling the widespread problem of raw sewage from the nation’s foul sewers discharging into England’s rivers. But none of these legal instruments will mean much unless successive governments (whatever their political complexion) and DEFRA seriously get behind this task.

At present there are serious questions marks over such a commitment given the way government, Defra and the water companies conducted themselves during the passage of the 2021 Environment Act through Parliament. Therefore we, the public and parliamentarians, will be able to judge the Government and DEFRA’s and the water companies’ commitment to real reform very soon when, as the 2021 Act requires, Government has to produce a report for Parliament by 1st September 2022 on this subject. So we will see, within the year, whether this immediate commitment is real or not. Right now, the jury is still out.


The Committee’s findings on the Actions of the Environment Agency and water industry regulators

○ “Ofwat [is] focused on security of water supply and on keeping bills down with insufficient emphasis on . . . .ensur[ing] that the sewerage in England is fit for the 21st century.” (2)

○ “Financial penalties for pollution incidents and misreporting must be set at a level that puts the issue on the agenda in water company board rooms.” (3)

○ “We note that the Environment Agency does not consider any use of storm overflows to be a pollution incident: discharges from overflows are classed as permitted discharges as long as they comply with the terms of the relevant permit. This is unlikely to incentivise overall reductions in discharges. We recommend that the Environment Agency reclassify significant sewage spills from storm overflows into watercourses in dry weather as pollution incidents, irrespective of permit compliance.” (68)

○ “ . . . I need to emphasise [oral evidence from Sir James Bevan, CEO Environment Agency] that our resources have gone down quite significantly in the last 10 years in terms of our ability to tackle water quality. If you want a figure, the grant in 2010, which funds the Environment Agency’s environmental work, including much of what we do on water, was £120 million; last year it was £40 million . . . It has had an effect on our capacity to monitor, to enforce the rules and to help improve the environment where we think it needs doing . . . Honestly, I would like to see that grant restored.” (page 14, ref. 33, response to EAC Question 213).

○ “ . . . You (Environment Agency] prosecuted 174 breaches by water companies between 2010 and 2020 across more than 1,000 sewage treatment plants, which is a rate of about 17 a year.” (page 14, ref 33, statement from EAC Committee member, Question 220).

○ “The other thing I would say [Sir James Bevan, CEO Environment Agency] about prosecuting is the fines are not big enough. Even the biggest which we secured against Thames Water of about £20 million, is peanuts compared with the daily turnover of a company like Thames Water.” (page 14, ref. 33, response to EAC Question 229). [Marinet note: This evidence was made to the EAC in early 2021, later that year Southern Water was fined £90 million for sewage pollution breaches occurring over the period 2010 to 2015].

Marinet comment: There are two aspects to the deficiencies in regulation — one is the shortage of funding for the regulator, and the other is the actions of the regulator.

On the question of funding, clearly having one’s budget cut by two-thirds over 10 years, as has been the experience of the Environment Agency, will result is a deterioration in its monitoring and regulatory regime – unless the regulator can work to new levels of efficiency and value for money. For the Environment Agency this has definitely not been the character of its response to these financially straightened times.

Therefore the second aspect arises: what exactly is the approach and the nature of the regulatory policy decisions being made by the regulator itself? In other words, one has to ask whether the Environment Agency has endeavoured to help itself?

Whilst the Environment Agency’s CEO explained the crash in its budget to the Committee, he presented no evidence of speaking truth to government: namely, that a constrained budget would lead to adverse consequences in water quality. Why has the Environment Agency not done so? And indeed, why has Parliament allowed this to happen?

One also has to ask whether the Environment Agency is using its slender monitoring resources to the best effect. For example, not to be using continuous automated monitoring systems strategically located would seem a logical response to reduced manpower, but this does not appear to have happened. Why? To take another example, why is monitoring still wholly random in terms of day and location, instead of being developed into a response system targeting pollution events (storm overflows) when and where they occur? And further, why are prosecutions so low, thus creating a context where the polluter knows that even if their pollution is detected they are unlikely to suffer adverse legal and financial consequences? The Environment Agency’s CEO offered no enlightenment on any of these issues.

Regrettably, it is difficult to avoid arriving at the conclusion that there is something amiss in the overall professional culture of the Environment Agency at a senior level. It seems unable to talk openly with the public about its problems, and is almost complicit in its own shortcomings. For example, as reported by BBC news [18th November2021, see, rather than prosecute a company for a severe pollution incident it decided that the pollution “wasn’t down to dangerous or foolhardy behaviour” so excused the company of prosecution upon payment by the company of £50,000 to the local Rivers Trust, thus making the Rivers Trust in turn indirectly dependent on a pollution event for its own funding.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is something warped in the way the Environment Agency is currently operating.

Regarding Ofwat, which sets the broad framework of the financial regime under which water companies operate, it is clear that the financial regime they are establishing for the water companies is not allocating enough resources to improve the capacity of sewage treatment works or of their sewerage and drainage network. Ofwat may claim that it has to follow Ministerial direction (DEFRA) in these matters. Even so, has it protested that this will lead to the shortcomings that are now so evident and laid these protests before the public’ gaze by the Commons Committee? We have seen no evidence of this.

Ofwat and the Environment Agency appear supine and to be lacking in intelligent forethought. Are these the qualities we are prepared to tolerate in a regulator? And surely Parliament must stir itself to remedy this?


The Committee’s Recommendations on the Environment Agency and water industry regulators

○ “We [EAC] recommend that Ofwat examine the scope of its existing powers in respect of water company remuneration, with a view to limiting the awards of significant annual bonuses to water company senior executives in the event of major or persistent breaches in permit conditions.” (71)

○ “The value of biodiversitybiodiversity Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals. in rivers in England does not appear to have been priced adequately into the economic decisions made by companies and by regulatory agencies. If it is to meet the Environment Act’s legally binding target to halt the decline in the abundance of species in England by 2030, the Government must make it clear, in strategic guidance to Ofwat and to National Highways, that from now on natural capital needs to be taken into account in all economic decision making, and priced at a level that preserves and enhances it.” (110)

○ “ We [EAC]recommend that, when it publishes its review methodology in 2022, Ofwat set out how it intends to reflect natural capital fully in its economic regulatory decisions for Price Review 24. PR24 must encourage water companies to make a substantial increase in their investment in nature-based solutions, so as to improve the quality of effluent being discharged from sewage treatment plants.” (110/111)

“Delivering the step change in action on water quality that is demanded will require DEFRA to set a strong strategic direction and clear targets. Regulators must be empowered and funded adequately to implement and enforce the relevant provisions of the amended Water Industry Act and the new Environment Act. We note that in 2020 the annual grant support from central government to the Environment Agency was £80 million less than the funding provided in 2009.” (111)

“We [EAC]recommend that the level of financial support provided to the Environment Agency be reviewed as a matter of urgency in the light of its new statutory responsibilities and the scale of the regulatory task it faces, recognising its continued need for efficiency.” (111)

“We [EAC] further recommend that the Environment Agency, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury review the relevant provisions of the Agency’s environmental permitting charging scheme so as to ensure that charges for discharge permits and related activities properly reflect the cost to the Agency for these activities.” (111)

Marinet comment: The Committee has made a strong and extensive set of recommendations to Parliament and Government on reform of the Environment Agency and Ofwat. If these recommendations are heeded, we can expect reform to occur.

However will they be heeded, or will Parliament and Government, including DEFRA, continue with the present dysfunctional regulatory system and attempt to muddle through – as is all too frequently the case when the requirement for reform is taxing? That is the question.

We have earlier addressed our concerns about whether the model and structure of the water industry and the regulation is the correct one, and we re-iterate that concern once again.

Unfortunately the regulatory nature of the water industry is such that the financial penalties for its law breaking are, as some witnesses observed to the Committee, ‘peanuts’ in relation to the company’s overall revenues; and even if they were not so financially inconsequential, then to fine the company is to effectively frustrate the company from making the improvements that the transgressions in the law have revealed are essential. Thus no one wins — the rivers continue to suffer acutely, and the water rate payer secures really poor value in return for their annual payments.

So when a public company wilfully pursues policies leading to the outcomes that this Committee’s inquiry and report has described, should not the Board of Directors themselves be held criminally liable for failing to run a public company in a publicly responsible manner?

And should not fines and ‘donations’ for breaches of the law, whether intentional or otherwise, be made available as revenue to the regulator (Environment Agency) in the same way that the regulator secures revenue from a water company for issuing the original permits to discharge water to a river?


The Committee’s summary of the main proposals in the Environment Act 2021 on River Water Quality

○ “The mounting public concern about sewage pollution was reflected in backbench proposals in the House of Lords for amendments to the Environment Bill which would place a duty on water companies in England to demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage.

“Both Houses eventually agreed on a provision which requires water companies in England to secure progressive reductions in the adverse impacts on the environment and on public health of discharges from storm overflows. Ministers are also required to publish, by September 2022, a plan to reduce sewage discharges from sewer overflows and their adverse impacts, including on public health, and a report on the actions required to eliminate discharges from storm overflows of water companies in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions.” (56)

○ “The Environment Act 2021 received Royal Assent on 9 November 2021. We [EAC] have already referred to several of its relevant provisions: we summarise below the main provisions which have a bearing on water quality issues.

The Act places the following duties on water companies:

• to achieve a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows;

• to produce drainage and sewerage management plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning horizon, including how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans;

• to publish annual data on the operation of sewer overflows;

• to publish near real time information (within 1 hour) of the commencement of an overflow, its location and when it ceases; and

• to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow or a sewage disposal works.

The Act also places a number of duties on the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

• to produce a report before 1st September 2022 setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate storm overflows in England and the costs and benefits of those actions;

• to publish a plan before 1st September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows and to reduce their adverse impact including on public health;

• to report to Parliament progress implementing the plan.

The Government has told us that it expects action on reducing the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows to begin immediately. It says this work will increase in pace and scale from the next water industry Asset Management Period (2025–2030) and continue into the long term. Further detail on what kinds of reductions are expected during PR24 will be set out during Ofwat’s price review process.” (79/80)

Marinet comment: The UK is now responsible for its own administration of environmental laws, and the regulation of those laws, following the country’s departure from the European Union. The Environment Act is the response of Government to set in place those laws and systems of regulation which will now apply. The new laws and systems of regulations in the 2021 Act are in addition to those UK laws and regulatory systems which already exist.

When the Act gained Royal Assent in November 2021, these new laws and systems of regulation have proved to very different and far more extensive than the laws and systems of regulation contained in the Environment Bill when it was first introduced to Parliament in 2019, and similarly so when discussed in the House of Commons during the early part of 2021. At that time the Bill contained none of the provisions — which are now in the Act — on storm overflows and their regulation and reduction, on monitoring of wastewater discharges and the quality of river water affected by those discharges, and in respect of a duty on Government to produce a national plan by 1st September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows and to reduce their adverse impact including on public health.

When Marinet tried to achieve, in the first half of 2021, with the help of certain MPs (notably Philip Dunne MP) the first early versions of these amendments when the Bill was being discussed at the Commons Committee Stage, Marinet was the sole environmental organisation seeking to do so. Also, apart from Philip Dunne MP and his immediate colleagues, it is notable that there were no other MPs seeking to do so either. All our efforts came effectively to nought because the Government refused to admit any serious amendment into the Bill.

It was not until the Bill entered the House of Lords, in the second half of 2021, that matters changed. This was because of four primary reasons.

The first was that Parliament had earlier been alerted to the need for reform by the Private Member’s Bill tabled by Philip Dunne MP, ‘Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill’. This Bill had secured a Second Reading but due to the virus pandemic Parliament had not been able to convene to give it further consideration, so it fell through lack of parliamentary time. Nevertheless, the need for reform had been raised.

The second was that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee was in continuous session throughout 2021 and taking evidence on the poor water quality in rivers, thus leading to widespread publicity and public engagement with their sorry state of neglect and suffering due to a governmental-wide dereliction of duty.

The third was that Peers in the House of Lords, notably led and informed by the Duke of Wellington and his immediate colleagues, were appalled by what they were learning and they were not prepared to accept an Environment Bill which did not seriously address these issues (as the House of Commons had been prepared to do); and so, led by the Duke, they tabled a sequence of fundamental amendments.

The fourth was the public, outraged like the Peers by what they were learning. The public decided to lobby the House of Lords and MPs to amend the Bill significantly in line with the amendments being proposed by The Duke of Wellington.

The Duke’s proposals sought to address the real and deeper purposes of the new sewerage and drainage management plans being required of the water companies; and Peers’ amendments also had regard to those reforms on monitoring and drainage being proposed by Philip Dunne MP (for the detail see his Private Members Bill: Sewage [Inland Waters] Bill, see

The fourth of these reasons, public lobbying, was widespread and inspired most notable by Marinet and SOS Whitstable; in the case of SOS Whitstable, they launched a petition which incentivised widespread public lobbing see: By the time of the House of Lords’ deliberations in the autumn 2021 this Petition secured had over 100,000 signatures, and is now approaching 150,000.

In the face of this determination from the public and Peers and from certain MPs, the Government had to yield and agreed to amend the legislation into the significantly different form in which the 2012 Act now stands — at least, compared to the version of the Bill in early 2021.

The Government has managed to head off real reform: that is, reform based on the separation of surface water drainage entering the foul sewers throughout England which is the fundamental cause of storm overflows. Nevertheless, some real changes and commitments to reform are now contained in the Act, as detailed in the summary by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee of the provisions of the 2021 Act, see above.

Will these reforms come to fruition? Will the horrendous reality now confronting water quality and the natural world in our rivers be exorcised by the 2021 Act and the amendments made to it?

It should not be forgotten that the Government and Defra both had, metaphorically speaking, to be dragged kicking and screaming into making these reforms. So, is their commitment real? And if so, will it be enduring — not least because these reforms are going to take several years to put into place before they have real impact, and because they will come with a financial cost that will have to be met by some still unspecified means?

The first indication of the answer to these questions will come in September 2022 when the Government has to produce to Parliament “a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate storm overflows in England and the costs and benefits of those actions”.

That is when we will get our first glimpse of the real truth.

Today, can we be confident that government and DEFRA, supported by the water companies and the regulators, will be prepared to own up to the truth and actually deliver the reform which the public and the nation’s rivers require?

It is Marinet’s wish that the answer to that question be, yes. However we have also explained to you why the answer is equally likely to be, no. If it proves to be no, then it does not need Marinet to tell you that the future for our rivers will remain bleak, and grow even more bleak as long as the impetus for real reform is continuously ignored.

January 2022


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