Sewage pollution at edge of waterway

Press Release: Storm Overflows Reduction Plan lacks urgency — our rivers deserve better

Government today announced the start of consultation on its Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan (SODRP). The plan from Defra sets out targets for water companies to reduce the harm caused by pollution from combined sewer (or storm) overflows, meeting the objective set in the Environment Act last year.

Rebecca Duncan


The plan was launched ahead of the latest statistics from the Environment Agency summarising the number of spills that happened in 2021. Once these figures have been released, The Rivers Trust will update our sewage map, making the data more accessible to the public and local decision makers. The map will be critical in showing the scale of the current problem and informing the comments on the SODRP.

The Rivers Trust will be scrutinising the plan in detail in the coming weeks and encouraging wide participation in the consultation process, but in the meantime we have some initial comments on the headlines highlighted by Defra:

This plan is absolutely necessary to keep the sector on track, especially on the back of the public pressure that resulted in stronger measures in the Environment Act last year. However, this draft fails to set the pace and ambition for the water sector’s response to this problem over the next two decades, so the public’s response in this period of consultation is critical.

Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust: I’m disappointed that this plan lacks the urgency we so desperately need. This plan is going to need strong input from civil society and NGOs like The Rivers Trust if it is going to outpace the twinned climate and nature crises we’re currently facing. We want to have rivers where people and wildlife can thrive, but the target timelines in the plan are far too slow – I want to see this in my lifetime! Aiming to tackle only 52% of overflows by 2040 is unacceptable, we need more done sooner. Of course water company involvement is critical, but we need to see urgent and aligned targets for everyone with responsibilities in managing storm water, including local authorities and housing developers. Let’s not forget that the problems with storm water management start with planning, and we need to tackle the problem at source.

Christine Colvin, Director for Communications and Partnerships at The Rivers Trust: Seeing the headline statistics of this plan is a stark reminder of how far water companies have slipped with the staggering number of sewage releases we currently have. The fact that they are causing harm to so many of our precious chalk streams and sites of special interest, and that sewage spills cause 12% of our rivers to fail achieving good ecological health, is a terrible state to be in.

We know we need a realistic plan that can be implemented progressively, however, the timelines given here are slower than the commitments that some of the water companies have already made. United Utilities have already committed to reducing spills by a third by 2025 and Anglian Water have committed to reducing all discharges to less than 20 per CSO per year by 2025. This plan only aims to improve 14% of overflows by 2030 – it’s far too slow, and our rivers don’t have that window to survive current levels of pollution. We want to see government leading not lagging, and we will give detailed feedback to strengthen it substantially before it goes to parliament in September.

Michelle Walker, Technical Director at The Rivers Trust: I’m pleased that protecting public health at bathing waters is a priority in the plan,but the delivery is too slow. We want rivers fit to swim in within years not decades. We only have one designated river bathing area in England and our survey has revealed there are hundreds of sites where people already swim, paddle, fish and play in their local rivers. We need many more designated sites to create that driver for change, but we must have effective government enforcement and regulation to ensure that sources of pollution are tackled.

Timelines for delivery can be found on page 13 of Defra's plan

Further information

Find out more about sewage pollution and compare plans to tackle the issue from government and water companies.

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