Sewer overflow in river

Sewage scaremongering and the red herrings of costing

Christine Colvin, Director of Partnerships and Communications, outlines why a better system for sewage is possible.

Emily Cooper


Some MPs resisting the Lords amendment to stop sewage pollution in our rivers are referring to eye-watering numbers, claiming that we simply cannot afford to fix the problem. Others are saying we don’t need an extra clause, because this is already covered. Well, government can’t have it’s sludge cake and eat it! Either we’re going to fix it and can afford it, or not.

A blog published yesterday by Defra on the Environment Bill gives an indication as to why these figures are so astronomical: ‘…Initial assessments suggest total elimination would cost more than £150 billion. This process would involve the complete separation of the sewerage systems, leading to potentially significant disruption for homes, businesses and infrastructure across the country.’But let’s be clear – the Duke of Wellington’s amendment to the Environment Bill, places a duty on water companies to ensure raw sewage is not discharged into our rivers and coasts and requires this to be done reasonably and progressively. It is not demanding an irrational fix, digging up every sewer in the country and passing costs on to consumers.

This is why not:

One in five of our combined storm overflows (that discharge a mixture of untreated household sewage and rainwater) are overflowing more than 60 times a year. These are the chronic poor performers that are operating outside of the ‘exceptional circumstances’ they were designed for. These should be prioritised in a reasonable response. The amendment does not require the ‘complete separation of the sewerage systems’. Some of it actually works already.

Our entire system is not Victorian and some areas, such as those to be served by the Thames Tideway, have received recent investment (although even that at £4 billion is nowhere near the figures being quoted now). Nobody is proposing digging up our entire sewerage network and starting from scratch.

Some of our sewer systems are not combined; some systems are not overflowing to the point that they result in harm. Many chronic overflows could be resolved with upstream, cheaper nature based solutions (NBS), diverting water back into the natural water cycle where it brings more benefits (recharging aquifers) and ensure it does not overwhelm the sewage system downstream. Properly accounting for NBS and new innovation could cost substantially less. We have a wealth of information on sustainable urban drainage, waiting in the wings to be scaled-up.

The costs of the solutions need not all fall to water customers. Some costs of doing sewerage differently will be borne by developers. We can’t keep repeating the mistakes of the past - new developments could be incorporating sustainable drainage from design. Plus, we need to resolve more explicitly the issue of how costs to customers are balanced against dividends to shareholders. This is central to the issue in the contested privatisation of a public utility and continues to undermine water companies social license to operate.

No one has counted the cost of not acting now and calling a halt to our current progressive failure. Failure of nature’s recovery, for the next generation, ourselves, our health, our well-being. That is where the really eye-watering numbers lie. If we are to truly leave England in a cleaner, healthier state for future generations, then we need an intelligent, risk-based approach that builds on our existing engineered, natural and intellectual capital. Rethinking and rebuilding our most hidden, abused and dirty infrastructure to make it fit for our climate-impacted future is not something we can defer any longer.

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