River Management


Constituents have contacted me about the management of our rivers.

My ministerial colleagues and I fully appreciate the importance of our rivers. The volume of sewage and other pollution being discharged into our waters is completely unacceptable. The Government’s Plan for Water, published in April 2023, set out more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to tackle every source of pollution.

As part of the plan, over £2.2 billion of investment has been accelerated. This will be directed into vital infrastructure to improve water quality and secure future supplies, with £1.7 billion of this to tackle storm overflows. Ministers have set stringent targets for water companies to reduce storm overflows, driving the largest infrastructure programme in water company history of £60 billion over 25 years. This is a credible plan which includes front-loading action in particularly important and sensitive sites, including bathing waters.

Regarding regulation, Ministers have increased monitoring the frequency and duration of sewage discharges, from approximately 7 per cent in 2010 to 100 per cent oversight of overflows now, meeting the ambitious target set by the Government to do so by the end of 2023. This shows the public when discharges are happening and helps the Government and regulators to better hold water companies to account for illegal sewage spills and improve knowledge of overflow operation to identify where improvements can be made.

Further, the Government is clear that water companies must not profit from environmental damage and Ofwat has been given increased powers under the Environment Act 2021 to hold them to account for poor performance. In March 2023, Ofwat announced new powers that will enable it to take enforcement actions against water companies that do not link dividend payments to performance for both customers and the environment.

In July 2023, Ministers introduced laws to remove the £250,000 cap on penalties that can be handed out by environmental regulators, as well as significantly broaden their scope to target a much wider range of offences. This will ensure that regulators have the right tools to drive compliance across a range of sectors, including water companies. Fines from water companies are being reinvested into the new Water Restoration Fund, which will deliver on-the-ground improvements to water quality and support local groups and community-led schemes which help to protect our waterways.

Further, the Environment Agency has launched the largest criminal investigation into unpermitted water company sewage discharges ever at over 2,200 treatment works. I am assured that Environment Agency funding is closely monitored to ensure that it can carry out its duties and functions effectively. Its funding for inspections comes directly from the permits issued to companies; enforcement is funded by government, and in the current Spending Review period, the Environment Agency’s environment RDEL (Resource) grant for 2022/23 increased to £96 million from £56 million in 2020/21.

I am assured that these measures and others are making progress and Ministers will continue to make further improvements where necessary. Our bathing waters continue to improve, with 93 per cent classified as good or excellent in 2022 compared to 76 per cent in 2010. There is now 80 per cent less phosphorus and 85 per cent less ammonia in our rivers compared to 1990 when water was privatised.

Fiona Bruce 20/02/24