Campaigners appeal right to sue water regulator

Martin Lewis explains how to save on water bills

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Last summer, environmental advocates Wild Justice tried to take Britain’s water management regulator Ofwat to court for an alleged failure to clamp down on water companies’ abuse of sewage discharges. Permission for judicial review was refused, but the group brought its case to the Court of Appeal on Thursday. After swathes of the country’s most popular bathing spots were closed due to dangerously high pollution levels last summer, the fight for water quality continues in 2023, as live trackers highlight the scale of the ongoing problem.

While most of our sewage is transported to treatment plants to be cleaned and released safely, raw sewage is still regularly discharged into the UK’s rivers and coastal waters. When rainfall threatens sewage backing up into homes, pressure is released via Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).

Designed for exceptional circumstances only, evidence suggests the water companies that operate them have been overusing them to an alarming degree. In 2021, the Environment Agency recorded over 2.6 million hours worth of sewage spills in Britain – 25 times more than in 2016.

Last year, things got even worse. As a result, water quality across the country has reached dangerously low levels. Mark Lloyd, CEO of conservation experts The Rivers Trust said: “To say that the health of England’s rivers is in danger is an understatement; they’re under immense pressure from pollution, climate change, and nature degradation.

“We’ve made it clear that all sectors of society have a part to play in improving them. That includes the water industry, and we are happy to talk to any person or organisation to implement the wholescale changes that are necessary if we are to bring our rivers to good health again.”

Last summer, water companies faced fierce criticism as holidaymakers on some of Britain’s most popular beaches were advised to stay out of the water by the Environment Agency due to water pollution.

The Water Services Regulation Authority – known as Ofwat, responsible for water management in England and Wales – came under fire in turn for failing to hold said companies to account.

In June, the nature conservation campaign group Wild Justice filed a legal claim in the High Court seeking a judicial review of Ofwat’s failure to monitor and take enforcement action against water firms that discharge raw sewage into waterways under the Water Industry Act 1991 and the Urban Waste Water Treatment (England and Wales) Regulations 1994.

A non-profit organisation, Wild Justice took to crowdfunding for their legal expenses, raising £45,434 in a single day for the legal case – well over their £40,000 target.

READ MORE: Hundreds of Britain’s beaches at risk of pollution by landfill sites

In the documents, Dr Ruth Tingay, director of Wild Justice, said: “We are particularly concerned that a continued lack of action on Ofwat’s part will lead to a collapse in biodiversity, both within rivers and coastal waters, and, as a knock-on effect, in the areas surrounding those waters. This will be disastrous for nature conservation generally and wildlife in particular.”

On October 18, permission for a judicial review was refused on all counts by the High Court judge. Ofwat claims to have imposed penalties and payments of over £250million over the last five years.

An Ofwat spokesperson said: “We were pleased to see the High Court judge agreeing that Ofwat is acting to hold companies to account on their environmental performance and recognising our place within the wider regulatory framework, and we trust the Court of Appeal will take the same view.”

“We will continue to push companies to act in the best interests of customers and the environment, and as more and better data become available, ensure this insight is translated into action.

“We will also continue to engage with organisations like Wild Justice who play an important role in pressuring the sector to deliver more for the environment. The current situation is unacceptable, and we all expect to see improvements made now.”

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On Thursday, Wild Justice appealed the High Court ruling in the Court of Appeal. The judgement was reserved – meaning the decision will be disclosed at a later date.

Environmental campaigners Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) tracks CSO discharges in real-time in order to keep eye on water quality. On the day of the appeal hearing, the group flagged more than 70 sites where sewage had been released within the past 48 hours – from Seaham Beach in Sunderland to Swanpool in Cornwall.

Although the majority of the waters flagged were coastal, some of the country’s most popular recreationally-used rivers and streams were not spared, from Ilkley Bathing Water in West Yorkshire to Sandford Lock – a boating and angling hotspot just down the River Thames from Oxford.

An SAS spokesperson said: “Our rivers are in a dire state and the majority fail to meet good ecological or chemical status. The regulation only permits sewage overflows to operate in ‘unusually heavy rainfall’. Yet, the government admitted sewage overflows ‘are being used significantly beyond their original purpose.. It is a blatant and outrageous disregard for our blue spaces.

“Last year, we exposed over 140 potentially illegal ‘dry spills’ of water companies spewing sewage when there was no rain. Ofwat have clearly been asleep at the wheel, allowing water companies to persistently exploit a public good for their private profit. Ofwat stands by as they let infrastructure crumble and let our waterways die. It’s time for Ofwat to wake up.”

The Rivers Trust has also compiled all recorded sewage discharges into the UK’s internal and coastal waters over the past three years. You can check their map here.

Highly polluted rivers pose a critical risk to wildlife and bathers. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Troubled Waters report, 88 percent of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland agree freshwater habitats are a “national treasure” and 87 percent want more to be done to protect them. Yet, the report found only 14 percent of rivers in England met standards for good ecological status.

The Rivers Trust has long been campaigning for certain well-used swimming spots to be designated and protected bathing spots. The vast majority of people they surveyed (86 percent) said they would feel safer in the water if they knew there were designated safe bathing areas.

Taking a dip downstream from a CSO can expose swimmers to pathogens harmful to health. Over a quarter (27 percent) of respondents reported having suffered from an illness likely linked with exposure to river water.

Over the past year, SAS received 720 sickness reports, just under 70 percent reporting stomach upsets (gastroenteritis) and one in every 15 cases claiming multiple illnesses.

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