There has been significant investment in the clean up of rivers and coastlines in the UK with a fund of £1.6bn put aside to help with environmental concerns

More than £1.6bn is to be invested by water companies in improving the industry’s infrastructure in England in the next two years, the water industry regulator Ofwat announced recently, in a victory for environment campaigners.

It follows a request from the government Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to English water companies to ramp up their investing between now and 2025 to tackle storm overflow discharges, reduce nutrient pollution from treatment works and address water resilience challenges.

Public outrage over the discharge of raw sewage into rivers is now a major political issue with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accusing the government of turning Britain’s waterways into an ‘open sewer’. Many members of the public have also been reporting health issues after bathing in the sea.

Discharges of raw sewage from storm overflows into English rivers and coastal waters took place 825 times a day last year, according to figures from the Environment Agency. Data from the website Top of the Poops, which collates Environment Agency statistics at a constituency level, shows 375,000 sewage spills took place in England and Wales in 2022, lasting 2,291,055 hours.

Anti-sewage discharge protesters on Tankerton beach, near Whitstable, Kent in 2022. Photo: Jamie McBean / Alamy Stock Photo

The water infrastructure investment programme comes as the government announced a new ‘Plan for Water’ for England that will promote both the cleanliness of the water environment and the preservation and best use of water resources.

The problems range from the pollution of rivers and coastlines from sewage and agriculture, to the issue of water shortages, as the climate crisis leads to droughts across the UK. The Plan for Water brings forward the £1.6bn for water companies to speed up their infrastructure upgrades to start between now and 2025.

Farmers will also be supported with an extra £34m to tackle water pollution and boost food production, with an additional £10m for farm reservoirs and irrigation. Under the plan, fines from water companies will be reinvested into a new Water Restoration Fund, making polluters pay for damage they cause to the environment.

There will also be the launch of a £6.6m Lowland Peat Research and Development programme in 2023 to identify the best way to reduce emissions from lowland peatlands. ‘Our rare chalk streams and world-famous coastlines, lakes and rivers are hugely important to local communities and to nature,’ said Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey. ‘I completely understand the concerns that people have about the health and resilience of our waters, which is why I am setting out this plan for a truly national effort to protect and improve them.

‘That includes higher penalties taken from water company profits which will be channelled back into the rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed.’ Stronger regulation is also proposed.

There will be a ban on the sale of wet wipes containing plastic, subject to consultation, and dialogue with producers and advertising authorities about ‘flushable’ labelling on wet wipe packaging. There will be new proposals to restrict the use of ‘forever’ chemicals (PFAS) found in rivers and seas – including proposals for a ban on PFAS in fire-fighting foams. The deadline for water companies to reduce chemicals in wastewater treatments will also be brought forward. The plan advocates a new National Policy Statement on water resources so that reservoirs and water transfer schemes can be built more quickly.

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