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Case update 19 October 2022

Stop spilling sewage! Make water companies urgently clean up their act

A deluge of untreated sewage is being dumped by water companies into our rivers and along our coastlines, but the Government is failing to act.

This is one of the biggest environmental scandals of our times – destroying precious and biodiverse ecosystems, contaminating food sources, threatening people’s livelihoods and posing a serious health hazard to people enjoying our beaches and rivers.

Around 14,500 storm overflows are in operation across England to keep sewers from becoming overwhelmed. But as our Victorian-era sewers are pushed to their capacity, sewage is increasingly being discharged into our rivers and coastal waters.

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This should only happen in an emergency, but it is becoming a routine practice for water companies. Last year alone, there were a whopping 372,533 sewage spills, over a period of 2.7 million hours.

We need urgent action. But in August, the Government published a Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan giving water company bosses until 2050 to improve England’s storm overflows to prevent or reduce mass-scale sewage discharges.

Giving the green light to this form of environmental vandalism for decades to come will do untold damage. We believe the Government’s lack of urgency is not only dangerous but also unlawful.

Good Law Project is delighted to join forces with Richard Haward’s Oysters and surfer and activist, Hugo Tagholm, to compel the Government to rewrite its Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan and bring forward the deadlines for water companies to act. We are also in discussions with others impacted by the Government’s plan, who may join us as co-claimants later on.

We consider that the plan is insufficient to meet the Secretary of State’s legal obligations, on three grounds:

  • The plan fails to discharge the Secretary of State’s legal duty under the Water Industry Act (1991), as amended by the Environment Act (2021).
  • The plan breaches various rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and is unlawful under the Human Rights Act (1998).
  • The plan is contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine, which provides ancient common law rights for people to fish, gather food and navigate our shared waters. The Public Trust Doctrine is built upon the principle that the state has a fiduciary duty to safeguard vital natural resources for the benefit of both current and future generations.

Good Law Project recently forced the Government to go back to the drawing board on their lacklustre Net Zero strategy.

With this case, we hope to make them concede again. But we need your help.

Please join us in our campaign to protect our coastlines, rivers and waterways for generations to come by supporting this challenge.

Our Pre-Action Protocol (PAP) letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, can be read here.