Our landmark Environment Bill received Royal Assent last week, and is now law.
This bold, wide-ranging and vital Act will improve our air and water quality, tackle waste, increase recycling, halt the decline of species, and improve our natural environment. Importantly, this Act will also crack down on companies who actively discharge sewage into rivers, waterways and coastlines, including a new duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows. I know constituents have been worried about getting this matter right and this new Act will bring about the real deliverable long-term change we all want to see.
It is clear that the current amount of sewage discharge due to storm overflows by water companies into our rivers or seas is not acceptable and my colleagues in DEFRA have made it clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority. A reminder votes often don’t mean you don’t disagree with the premise but sometimes cannot accept the current amendment and we work where possible to achieve this where it’s right to move and unpick the process.
I would very much like to highlight that, despite ongoing significant inaccurate reporting in the media and on social media, MPs did NOT vote to actively allow water companies to pump sewage into our rivers when we rejected the initial Duke of Wellington’s amendment.
My reasons for voting as I did can be read here: https://www.mimsdavies.org.uk/news/update-environment-bill-sewage
I am pleased to say we have now voted again on an updated Government amendment and worked with the Duke and been able to deliver a finalised a package of measures to reduce harms from storm overflows, including:
- A clear NEW duty directly on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning horizon, including how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.
- a power of direction for the government to direct water companies in relation to the actions in these Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans. We will use this power of direction if plans are not good enough. This is a powerful tool.
- a new duty on Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows
- a requirement for government to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions. Both publications are required before 1 September 2022.
- a new duty directly on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
- a new duty directly on water companies to publish near real time information on the operation of storm overflows. This means it will be clear as to how often storm overflows are being used, which will aid enforcement.
- a new duty directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works.
- Additionally, in July of this year, this Government set out, for the first time ever, its expectation that Ofwat (the regulator) should incentivise water companies to invest to significantly reduce the use of storm overflows in the forthcoming pricing review period. Ofwat will be required to act in accordance with this expectation. We have placed this policy position in law.
Following the Environment Bill becoming law, my colleague, the Environment Minister Rebecca Pow MP, said this act will “dock in with the existing enforcement regime in the Water Industry Act 1991”. She went on to say that:
“Ofwat can issue enforcement notices that can direct specific actions or fine companies up to 10% of their annual turnover, running to millions of pounds. If we do not see sufficient progress from water companies, Ofwat and the government will be able to take enforcement action, and we will not hesitate to do so.”
DEFRA Ministers have also met with the CEOs of water companies during the passage of the Environment Act, stressing the need for focused action in this area. The water industry has been clear that they recognise what needs to be done.
Meanwhile, Water UK have confirmed:
“The water industry recognises the need for urgent action on storm overflows as part of our commitment to protecting the environment. That is why we strongly support the Government’s efforts to tackle overflows, and are pleased to see important new measures in the Environment Bill for eliminating harm. We have been working closely with environment groups and others to agree a plan of action for making the swift progress we all want to see. A crucial part of that will be Government giving clear direction to regulators via its “Strategic Policy Statement”, which is essential for enabling the schemes and investment needed to transform our sewerage infrastructure.”
As I said, I am very pleased to say the Environment Bill has gained Royal Assent, and is now an Act of law. The new Environment Act will deliver wide-ranging impacts:
- Long-term targets to improve air quality, biodiversity, water, and waste reduction and resource efficiency
- A target on ambient PM2.5 concentrations, the most harmful pollutant to human health
- A target to halt the decline of nature by 2030
- Environmental Improvement Plans, including interim targets
- A cycle of environmental monitoring and reporting
- Environmental Principles embedded in domestic policy making
- Office for Environmental Protection to uphold environmental law.
I hope this was a helpful update and sets your mind at rest .