We can all agree that we want to see a reduction in the discharge of waste water and sewage at sea, and that’s why we have launched our most ambitious plan yet to achieve this. Our plan will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history, costing over £56 billion in infrastructure investment over the next 25 years to tackle storm sewage discharges.
In recent weeks people have been asking, why doesn’t parliament just vote now to ban all discharges. However, votes don’t mean much unless there is a plan to act on them. The problem with sewage discharge is linked to storms and heavy rainfall. Surface water drains off into the main sewer and in extreme conditions can risk flooding it. In situations like these discharge at sea is used to prevent sewage from backing up into the drains.
Most of the time our drainage system operates well below its storage capacity. Last year I visited Southern Water’s deep sewer control centre in Folkestone to speak with the team there about how they manage waste water in the district. This is a modern facility, built about twenty-five years ago, that uses up to date monitoring equipment. If we were to ban all releases of sewage at sea, as a result of storm overflows, water companies would need to create the infrastructure to separate all surface water and waste water pipes. In England there are currently around 100,000km of combined sewers, and it is estimated that the cost of separating them all would be between £338billion to £593billion. We would also need to increase the storage capacity for sewage which would cost between £120billion and £190billion and require an additional 118.43 million m3 of storage, or the equivalent of 40,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.
You might ask as well, why is there so much more public debate now about this issue, does this mean that things are getting worse? Well, one of the reforms we have made over the past ten years is to provide more public information about discharges at sea. This is particularly important for people who are regularly swimming or sailing. This government has increased the number of storm overflows monitored across the network from approximately 5% in 2016, to nearly 90% in 2021. By the end of 2023 we will have 100% coverage.
Around the country, our sea bathing waters have been steadily improving over time, with 93% of the bathing waters in England rated as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ in the latest classifications. Locally, the Environment Agency rates the bathing water as ‘excellent’ in Hythe and Sandgate, and ‘good’ in Folkestone, Dymchurch and Littlestone. However, St Mary’s Bay is currently rated ‘poor’ and this requires improvement. What makes this location different however to other areas of our coast, is that it is where one of the main historic drainage rivers from Romney Marsh discharges into the sea, and may bring with it waste that has run off of farmland and other sources from right across the Marsh. This is being investigated by the Environment Agency, but is a different problem from the debate about storm discharges of sewage at sea.
However, where water companies are failing in their duties, we will take action against them. Since 2015, the Environment Agency have concluded 56 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies securing fines of over £141m. The regulators have recently launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage discharges ever, and can fine companies up to 10% of annual turnover.