Dirty rivers could lead to a wave of legal action

·3 min read
An outflow pipe discharging wastewater into the River Rawthey in Sedbergh, Cumbria
An outflow pipe discharging wastewater into the River Rawthey in Sedbergh, Cumbria

The Environment Secretary is facing court action over dirty rivers as a new watchdog launches a major investigation.

Britain’s environmental regulators could be taken to the High Court over their failure to prevent widespread dumping of raw sewage, polluting waterways for wildlife and swimmers.

The newly formed watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), is to investigate George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, the Environment Agency, and Ofwat, which regulates water company funding and billing.

The announcement follows a Telegraph campaign calling for action to stop companies being allowed to pollute Britain’s waterways in a scandal that has led to swimmers becoming sick and wildlife being choked by algae growing out of control due to nutrient pollution.

Data show that water companies dumped untreated sewage into English rivers and the sea 372,533 times last year.

Water companies have been criticised for failing to invest in infrastructure to keep pace with growing populations, meaning combined sewer systems that process rainwater and sewage are becoming overwhelmed and releasing their contents into rivers.

It will be the OEP’s first investigation since coming into existence earlier this year to replace the role of the European Commission following the UK’s exit from the European Union, and follows a complaint by the charity Salmon & Trout Conservation.

‘Unsatisfactory water quality a longstanding systemic issue’

Helen Venn, the OEP’s chief regulatory officer, said the move “could result in enforcement activity”. The watchdog has the power to take public bodies to the High Court for failing to follow environmental law.

She said: “Unsatisfactory water quality is an important, longstanding, systemic issue and one of the most pressing environmental concerns at this time.

“This is a complex area and there is already a great deal of work under way to try and tackle the problem of untreated sewage in our rivers.

“Our investigation will contribute to that work by providing clarity about the legal responsibilities of the different bodies involved to ensure measures to tackle the problems can be targeted and effective.”

It came as Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, called for local authorities to have the power to fine water companies.

In a speech at the Local Government Association’s annual conference on Wednesday, he is set to call for water companies to be required to report pollution figures every month “with councils able to fine those who try to cover it up”.

The move follows a series of enforcement cases launched by Ofwat into illegal sewage dumping by water companies, most recently into South West Water.

But the regulator itself has faced criticism for failing to prioritise investment in the network over the past two decades, while the Environment Agency has been accused of failing to monitor water quality and prosecute companies effectively.

An Ofwat spokesman said: “We have now opened enforcement cases into the majority of wastewater companies and all wastewater companies remain under investigation.

“Where companies fall short, we will act – over the last five years, for example, we have imposed penalties and payments of over £250 million.”

Rebecca Pow, the environment minister, said: “While we fully support the OEP’s investigation, we are going further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance the health of our rivers and seas.

“We are the first government to make the environment a priority for water companies as part of our strategic policy statement to Ofwat.

“We have secured £7.1 billion of water company investment to protect and improve the environment for 2020 to 2025, and are about to launch the largest investment programme by water companies ever on storm overflows with legally binding targets to drive this.”

An Environment Agency spokesman said: “The EA fully supports the OEP and intends to fully cooperate with its investigation.”