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Case update 20 May 2023

We are pushing ahead with legal action to help end the sewage crisis – despite water companies’ promises

David Pimborough / Shutterstock

Overwhelming public pressure has finally forced water companies to say they will take action to start cleaning up their colossal mess – built up over decades of inaction and after having made billions from scandalous profiteering.

The new National Overflows Plan announced on 18 May by the industry body, Water UK, has pledged £10 billion to cut sewage overflow incidents by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared with 2020. But as water company shareholders hang on to their billions in dividends, it appears it will be the public, yet again, picking up a significant part of the tab to reduce the amount of sewage being dumped into our rivers and seas.

Our legal action challenges the Government’s separate Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, announced last August. Its plan has given water firms until 2050 to get to grips with their industrial-scale sewage dumping problem and falls short of the mark. 

So the question is, will Ministers now bring this deadline significantly forward and expand what the plan covers to match the water companies’ new-found sense of urgency – and hold them to account over their recent pledges by introducing tougher targets?

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We have seen a Damascene realisation from the water companies, who have clubbed together to issue an extremely belated public mea culpa. They say they are ready “to invest what is needed to deliver the ambition set out in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan”.

But our legal challenge is based on the Government’s plan itself being inadequate. So the water companies’ commitments – while welcome, after decades of inaction – do not change the need for a proper plan that holds them to account.

Leaving this in the hands of the water companies and regulators has led to our rivers and seas being routinely polluted with untreated sewage. And the Government still needs to put in place a more robust and urgent plan to bring this unacceptable situation to an end. That is why we are supporting co-claimants – Marine Conservation Society, Richard Haward’s Oysters and surfer, Hugo Tagholm – in an upcoming High Court hearing to make sure this happens. 

If you are able to, you can support our legal challenge to protect our rivers, waterways and seas for generations to come here.