Serious pollution incidents from sewerage 'stuck at unacceptably high level', warns National Infrastructure Commission

Serious pollution incidents from water and sewerage “have plateaued at an unacceptably high level” for the past seven years, the National Infrastructure Commission has warned.

The commission, which provides expert advice to the Government, gave the warning in a baseline report published in advance of a wider assessment of the UK’s long-term infrastructure priorities which is to be published in 2023.

The NIC warned 32 per cent of water bodies in England do not have good ecological status due to continuous discharges from sewage.

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It said: “While the number of serious pollution incidents caused by water companies has decreased from 2002, serious pollution incidents from water and sewerage have plateaued since 2014 at an unacceptably high level.”

There were dozens of serious pollution incidents reported across the country last year.

In July, the Environment Agency said there had been 44 serious pollution incidents in 2020 - only 27 per cent down on the 60 recorded in 2012. Water companies had been set a target of a reduction of at least 50 per cent.

The NIC said that as part of its infrastructure assessment, a dedicated study will be carried out into reducing the risks of surface water flooding, which occurs when the volume of rainfall exceeds the capacity of drainage systems, and presents a risk to more than three million homes.

“This type of flooding is often localised and is disruptive to homes and businesses. It can also cause serious pollution to rivers with impacts on water and environmental quality, biodiversity, and public health and amenities,” the report said.

“The government is making piecemeal improvements but the scale of the challenge may require a more fundamental review of current arrangements. Multiple organisations are currently responsible for assets that impact on surface water flooding including local authorities, highways authorities and water companies. Water company sewers have a key role to play in providing drainage and reducing the risks of surface water flooding – if capacity in the sewerage system is not available, then sewers overflow.

“Seven per cent of water bodies in England, such as lakes and rivers, are failing good ecological status due to intermittent stormwater overflows. While serious pollution incidents caused by water and sewerage companies decreased from 2002, they have plateaued since 2014 at an unacceptable level. While properties are eight times less likely to suffer sewer flooding than they were in 1990, climate change could increase this risk.”

The NIC’s comments come after recent political rows over raw sewage being released into England’s rivers and seas.

MPs recently voted in favour of introducing tougher legal restrictions on the practice of releasing untreated waste into waterways via storm overflows. It followed accusations by Labour of a “screeching U-turn” by ministers after Tory MPs voted against stronger controls last month.

Questions on how to bring about action

Labour peer Lord Berkeley has questioned how Ministers can be forced to act over issues like sewerage.

In an online briefing about the NIC report, he said: “You’ve seen the debates we’ve been having in the Lords on sewage disposal and everything which don’t seem to be going in the right direction very fast. My question is how do we ensure ministers listen to your report, read it and MPs actually start taking some action?”

Sir John Armitt, chair of the Commission, said: “We have annual monitoring reports as an opportunity to try and hold government’s feet to the fire. One of the benefits of doing this report is it enables us to keep the pressure on.”

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