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Latest 17 January 2024

Water industry plan for ‘urgent change’ now four months late

The water industry promised to publish its plan to tackle its sewage dumping by summer 2023. Four months on, it still hasn’t materialised. So we’ve demanded answers.

As spring warmed into summer in 2023, public outrage was reaching boiling point over the industrial scale of sewage being dumped into our rivers and seas. A district judge fined Southern Water £2.15m, declaring that “incidents of pollution would no longer be tolerated”, while three UK water bosses handed back their bonuses, saying that they understood “the strength of feeling”.

By 18 May, the industry couldn’t stand the heat. The trade association, Water UK, issued an apology and a set of “plans for urgent change” that committed water companies to release a “National Overflows Plan” before the summer was out, backed by “investment worth £10bn”.

Seven months later, the water industry has cooled on urgent action. There’s still no sign of this plan.

The Water Minister, Rebecca Pow, was still chasing details from the companies in August. But according to Water UK, companies have already “submitted their action plans”.

“Those plans include proposals to invest £11 billion between 2025 and 2030, more than triple the current rate, to cut spills from overflows as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson told Good Law Project.

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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is also dragging its heels. The department told us they had “demanded a clear action plan on every storm overflow from water companies, prioritising those that are spilling at a high level and into bathing waters or high priority nature sites.”

But while these plans “have now been received”, they are still “being evaluated”.

There’s no time to waste. According to the latest figures, firms discharged raw sewage into our coasts and waterways through storm overflows over 300,000 times in 2022 for a grand total of 1,754,921 hours.

“This is another shambles from the water companies,” said Good Law Project’s Legal Director, Emma Dearnaley. “They’ve failed to deliver the urgent plan they promised months ago to tackle their sewage dumping, yet have said they expect the public to foot the bill to clean up the mess they’ve made once the plan is eventually published”.

“This is all while water company bosses and shareholders continue to line their pockets”.

Good Law Project is continuing to hold water companies and the Government to account over the sewage scandal. We’re currently awaiting a judgment – after we supported an intervention in a Supreme Court case against United Utilities – which will decide the question of whether water companies have immunity from civil action for the consequences of sewage dumping.

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