We’re ready to invest £10billion as part of an intense programme of activity over the next seven years
Almost exactly two months ago today, I started as the new Chair of Water UK, the body that represents all of the UK’s water companies. I did so because there are few things more important than water. Access to clean water sustains us — but more than that, our quality of life depends on being able to enjoy rivers and seas that we know are clean and safe.
The Times’ Clean It Up campaign, along with campaigners such as Feargal Sharkey and Paul Whitehouse, has pushed the issue of sewage to the top of the national agenda. Water companies have been in the spotlight — and it has been a chastening experience.
I want to tell everyone today that we’ve listened and we’ve heard.
And on behalf of water and sewage companies in England, I want to say: we are sorry. We get why people are upset and they are right that we should have given this issue much more attention. Rivers and beaches are often not at the standard the public rightly expect; we are sorry for the part we have played in that.
We want to put things right.
Our sewers are old and stretch for hundreds of thousands of miles. The Victorians designed them to mix rainwater with waste water from bathrooms and kitchens. It was remarkable engineering at the time, but their design means that during times of heavy rain, sewage overflows into rivers and beaches to prevent it backing up into houses.
Since the 1960s, rainwater has been separated from sewage, but we have a huge legacy of combined infrastructure that remains. Modernising that is a huge job, but we are determined to fix things as quickly as we can.
Today we are announcing a huge transformation programme, the biggest rebuild of our sewage system since the Victorians. Later in the summer we will publish more details in a National Overflows Plan. We’re ready to back that by tripling investment to £10 billion, as part of an intense programme of activity over the next seven years. We expect that, by 2030, this initial wave of investment will cut sewage overflows by up to 140,000 each year compared with the level in 2020.
We will focus on high priority areas, such as sites of special scientific interest. Our plan will increase the capacity of sewage works, rebuild sewer pipes and install the equivalent of thousands of Olympic swimming pool-sized storm tanks to hold rainwater.
Our plan will set out how much we plan to spend, where and when. If projects are approved by regulators, then each community will know exactly when sewage issues will be tackled in their area and be able to hold water and sewage companies to account. Each water and sewage company will also support the rollout of new river swimming areas, by providing help to up to 100 communities in drawing up plans, applying for legal protection, covering the costs of pre-submission water testing and working with regulators to fix local sources of pollution.
Alongside this, we are committing ourselves to greater transparency to improve accountability. By this time next year, we will have created a National Environment Data Hub — overseen independently — to publish data on sewage overflows.
Looking back, the water industry has not shown the leadership it should have done on sewage spills. We should have acted faster to respond to their obvious impact on people’s enjoyment of rivers and beaches. Today’s announcement is the first step in putting that right.