We’re intervening in the fight to protect England’s rivers

We have big news in the fight to keep England’s rivers and waterways safe from the dirty practices, and even dirtier sewage, of profit-hungry water companies. 

Good Law Project has been given permission to intervene in a crucial Court of Appeal case to try to prevent water companies from having near-total immunity to discharge sewage into England’s waterways.

This means the Court will consider our expert legal perspective, alongside the Environmental Law Foundation and other grassroots campaigners, on why water giant United Utilities must not be allowed to close the door on cases being brought against it for persistent sewage dumping.

If United Utilities were to win this case, it would effectively bar people from bringing certain types of claims against water companies that dump sewage into rivers and seas. The High Court found in United Utilities’ favour, but the case is now set to be heard by the Court of Appeal. The intervention by Good Law Project and other campaigning organisations aims to protect this vital legal option.  

People must be allowed to bring legal claims against polluters if we are to hold them to account. It is the only way to ensure water companies choose the public over their profits. 

Sewage was dumped into English rivers on more than 400,000 separate occasions in 2020 for a total of over three million hours. United Utilities was responsible for over a quarter of these. The company’s sewage dumping affects rivers across Greater Manchester, Cumbria, Merseyside, Cheshire and Lancashire, as well as in Derbyshire.

In their report last week, the Environmental Audit Committee agreed, saying that water companies “appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers on a regular basis.” 

In December, river swimmer Susan Mote told BBC South East that her dips in the River Ouse had left her with repeated ear infections, possibly caused by the polluted water. She was one of 12 people that BBC South East spoke with who had fallen sick after swimming or paddling in rivers and seas. “They all suspect sewage pollution is responsible.”

According to Surfers Against Sewage, in the UK last year “six out of eight rivers tested pose a continuous serious risk to human health.” And it is now well known that only 14% of English rivers are classified as being in good health.

Groups ranging from British Canoeing to River Action UK have all called on water companies to live up to their responsibilities and do much more to protect the UK’s rivers.  However, success in this case – when coupled with political and regulatory inaction – would give water companies near-immunity to discharge sewage in our rivers. 

We believe the argument against this is strong and through our intervention in the case, we will provide the Court with a wider context to the dispute and ensure that the law continues to protect our natural environment. 


Good Law Project only exists thanks to donations from people across the UK. If you’re in a position to support our work, you can do so here

The full list of organisations involved in the written intervention in this case are: