What should river health campaigners focus on next?

This post is by Daniel Johns, head of public affairs at Anglian Water.

I want to congratulate Philip Dunne MP and the Duke of Wellington, and all their supporters in parliament and far beyond, for making headline news of poor river health, and for securing significant changes to the Environment Act during the final stages before it passed into law. But the truth is that hard fought compromises from the government will bring few, if any, rivers back to good health, because storm overflows are often the final, albeit most visible, straw in our struggling river systems.

Investment priorities need to be clarified
Water companies backed the Duke of Wellington’s amendment because having a statutory need to tackle storm overflows will help ensure this is prioritised through the price review process.  As Minister Rebecca Pow admitted in parliament last week, the last Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat for the Price Review in 2019 was silent on storm overflows as a priority for investment. 

Anglian Water has the largest Water Industry National Environment Programme in the country, all of it focused on bringing rivers back to good health. Storm overflows account for less than one per cent of the reasons why rivers fail good ecological status in our region (around four per cent nationally). The lack of policy priority given to them at Price Review 2019 means the majority of the £800 million we plan to invest between now and 2025 is being spent on other river health needs. We’re prioritising what we can but need our regulators’ explicit support to go further and faster.

New protections and a cross sector plan are needed
Water UK’s recent report, 21st century rivers: ten actions for change, puts storm overflows in the context of the full range of reasons why rivers are falling short of good ecological health. It calls for a new cross sector National plan for rivers to systematically tackle them. This would be joined by new protections in law for sensitive environments like chalk streams, and stronger accountability to make sure commitments by central and local government, regulators and water companies are fulfilled.

Yes, this is the water industry wanting stronger governance of overall river health.

But you needn’t wait for such a comprehensive national rivers plan to come together. Here are the important policy moments coming up where further pressure from campaigners could make a real difference, starting today:

Friday 26 November
Support Fleur Anderson MP’s call to #BanPlasticInWetWipes
The Putney MP will be leading a Second Reading debate for her Plastics (Wet Wipes) Bill in the House of Commons and, without government support, the bill will go no further.  Water UK explained last week why water companies strongly back the bill. In short, of the 11 billion wet wipes sold in the UK each year, 90 per cent contain plastic microfibres and around one in four are flushed down the loo.  Wet wipes are the main cause of the 300,000 sewer blockages cleared by water companies every year, causing pumps to fail, overflows to trigger and adding £100 million to customer bills. Last week, Defra launched a call for evidence on single use items including whether to ban wet wipes containing plastic. Now that many product lines meet Water UK’s ‘Fine to Flush’ (plastic free) standard, it is time to ban wipes containing plastic fibres.

December
Environmental Audit Committee report on Water Quality in Rivers

This will make a series of recommendations that can be expected to go far beyond the steps taken so far in the Environment Act. These could include imposing duties on highways departments to prevent plastic dust from tyres and brake pads, plus other pollutants, washing untreated off roads into rivers. Tyre wear is one of the biggest sources of microplastics in rivers but, at present, there is next to no action happening to tackle it.

This winter
Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat laid before parliament
Defra’s draft Strategic Policy Statement for the Price Review in 2024 has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent weeks, and rightly so.  This document is ministers’ main statutory opportunity to influence water company investment in the latter half of this decade. Whilst the draft is better than the last one in 2017, we and many others argue that it needs to be much more explicit about what ministers want water companies to achieve by 2030.  The current draft is too weak to influence Ofwat’s judgements and, once it is laid before parliament this winter, it will be too late to change. Parliamentarians will only be able to reject it in its entirety.

February 2022
Consultation on Environment Act targets, including for water

The Environment Act requires ministers to set at least one target for nature, air quality, resource efficiency and waste, and water. Defra published early proposals for these more than a year ago, and has since been testing options with expert advisory groups.  The draft target for water quality focuses on reducing levels of phosphate and nitrates from farmland and water recycling centres. Such a target would be largely irrelevant to storm overflows, and it will be wholly insufficient if the real goal is to improve the ecological and chemical health of water bodies. A much more holistic target would focus on all sectors addressing the reasons why river health is failing and meeting the objectives for water bodies being set under new River Basin Management Plans.

Spring 2022
Consultation on a Storm Overflows Action Plan
The Storm Overflows Evidence Report, published earlier this month, described a range of options with costs ranging from £5 billion to £600 billion.  The economics is difficult, with none of the options on paper appearing cost effective. This gives full discretion to ministers to decide on the best approach, who may steer Ofwat towards the lowest cost, carbon intensive, end of pipe options. But there’s a clue to a much better way forward in the report’s text, spotted by the Rivers Trust, and that is targeting ‘high amenity’ watercourses first and adopting sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) and other nature-based solutions where possible. Green SuDS deliver a range of co-benefits, and projects are likely to attract joint funding from local authorities and other partners to bring costs to bill payers down.

September 2022
Final Storm Overflows Action Plan and ending the ‘automatic right to connect’ to sewers

Housing growth puts huge pressure on combined storm and wastewater sewerage systems. Developers, to this day, retain an ‘automatic right’ in law to connect new drains to existing sewers. To illustrate the problem, a single 40m2 roof will channel the same amount of rainwater into a sewer during a heavy rainstorm as 50-100 houses that only have a wastewater connection. After lying dormant since 2010, ministers had a change of heart this summer and agreed to review whether to finally commence Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act.  This is essential as it would remove the automatic right to connect drains to the sewer system and would require developers to follow a ‘drainage hierarchy’ that promotes local water reuse and sustainable drainage options instead.

A role for the Office for Environmental Protection
Finally, following Royal Assent, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has now been vestedand is expected to commence its functions in January 2022.  One of its first acts may be to launch a cross sector review of river health regulation and enforcement. Pollution of the River Wye shows that something must be done and the OEP’s chair Dame Glenys Stacey has heavily hinted she has a ‘thematic review’ of this sort in mind. A joint Environment Agency/Ofwat investigation into storm overflows is now underway but, as I have explained above, combined sewer overflows are just one aspect of a much bigger river health jigsaw.

Only with increased efforts from all those with a role to play – the government and regulators, farmers, highway departments, industry and urban planners, as well as water companies – will real progress on river health be made.

One comment

  • A particularly thoughtful, detailed and convincing article.  Thank you (and Daniel Johns) very much. Anthony Bourne

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