Our Victorian sewerage infrastructure has struggled to cope with a growing population and more frequent heavy rainfall resulting from climate change. This too often leads to raw sewage being released into our waters – and I am determined that this must stop.
We have already set out our expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows through a new policy statement, which specifies that Ofwat, the water regulator, must make sure that the water industry is delivering for the environment and for consumers across the country.
We are the first government to take such a step, and we are also the government that passed the world-leading Environment Act – an absolute game changer for water quality.
Through the Act, we have put in place a package of measures to reduce the harms from storm overflows in this region and across England.
This includes new duties which are law on water companies like Yorkshire Water, to reduce harm from storm sewage overflows as well as duties on both water companies and the government to increased monitoring, reporting and transparency regarding the use of storm sewage overflows.
These measures were informed by the work of the Storm Overflows taskforce which I set up. Monitoring of the sewage network is increasing exponentially so that the Environment Agency will be monitoring 100 per cent of storm overflows by next year.
We are consulting on a number of ambitious targets under the Environment Act, including targets to clean up our water by reducing nitrates, phosphates, sediment and pollution emanating from historic mining areas like the famous collieries of Wakefield, Rotherham and Barnsley.
We have gone further still, and launched a consultation on the single biggest programme of work in history to address these storm sewage overflows. This is excellent news for our bathing waters – an area this newspaper has followed closely through the efforts of campaign groups to secure the first bathing water designation for a river site along part of the Wharfe in Ilkley – and the work complements the other action that we are taking.
I have said time and again that the amount of sewage discharge by water companies into our rivers is unacceptable.
They need to raise their game and those that do not meet expectations will be held to account.
We have already demonstrated strong enforcement action against water and sewerage companies that damage our environment, including a record £90m fine against Southern Water.
Last year the Environment Agency and Ofwat also launched a major investigation based on evidence that some water companies in England may not be complying with their permits, resulting in excess sewage spills into the environment, even in dry periods. If contravention is clear, action will be taken against these companies.
In addition, we are taking wider action to improve water quality and the health of our rivers and seas through tackling pollution from agriculture.
In order to tackle pollution from agriculture, we have doubled investment in our Catchment Sensitive Farming programme that provides free advice to farmers to help them reduce water and air pollution through the management of farmyard manure and soils among other things. It is currently being rolled out to all farmers in this region and across the whole of England.
Elsewhere, we are cracking down on single-use plastics to prevent them from polluting our waters.
Having already banned microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, we have undertaken a call for evidence on problematic single-use items including wet wipes that contain plastic and to determine whether they should be banned.
Wet wipes makes a significant contribution to pollution when they block our sewers and we are seriously considering how this can be tackled.
When it comes to water quality, the honest answer is there isn’t a simple fix, but this government is doing all we can to take crucial action across the board to push this vital agenda forward.