Environmental Law News Update

15th October 2020

In this latest Environmental Law News Update, Charles MorganChristopher Badger and Mark Davies consider the new Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill 2019-21, proposed regulations on ecodesign requirements for household appliances and refrigeration and the launch of the Green Homes Grant scheme.

The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill 2019-21

This Private Member’s Bill was introduced by the Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP on 5 February 2020. The draft bill and explanatory notes were published yesterday and the Bill will receive its second reading in the House of Commons on 13 November 2020. It is described as “A Bill to place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and other inland waters; and for connected purposes”.

The substantive provisions of the Bill constitute a concise three-and-a-half pages of text enacting two sections. Its effect would be to introduce into to the Water Industry Act 1991 a new Chapter 1ZA, comprising four new sections 17ZA to 17ZD. These petite parameters belie the aim and reach of the Bill, which might be described as the winding-back of the consequences of the last 200 years or so from the adoption in the United Kingdom of the water carriage system of sewage disposal. Shortly put, that led to the creation of a system of combined sewers receiving and admixing both foul water and rainwater, all of which was then carried and discharged through the same pipes into inland and coastal waters, effectively turning those waters into parts of the system itself as a natural network of pipes and receptacles. The rainwater element being hugely variable and unpredictable, the system had to provide managed and designed relief from surcharging and did so via the now notorious combined sewer overflows (CSOs), of which we have written recently, see issues 140 and 142. In the latter article we noted the initial appearance of the Bill and speculated as to whether it would, as its short description suggested, seek to go further than the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive in curbing discharges from CSOs altogether, without the present exclusion of “exceptional circumstances” (which, we noted, had seemingly occurred on some 200,000 known occasions during 2019).

The Bill in fact strikes a middle ground. At its heart is the proposed new section 17ZA(1): “A water company in England must take all reasonable steps to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into inland waters.” This is fleshed out by a non-exhaustive list of reasonable steps in section 17ZB, including the maintenance of a register of CSOs “and any other sewer catchment assets from which discharges of treated or untreated sewage may be made to inland waters” (which would thus seem to catch all continuous discharges too), the biannual publication of reports on their “operational status”, progressively improved monitoring of performance, and planning to ensure the introduction of additional biological treatment at wastewater treatment works and that “reliance upon CSOs is progressively reduced”.

Section 17ZC would impose annual reporting duties upon the Secretary of State, including an indication of what steps it is proposed to take to achieve fulfilment of the s. 17ZA duty. This identifies and elaborates upon five broad types of measures, namely:

  • measures intended to separate surface water and sewage collection – s. 17ZC(3)
  • measures intended to reduce the volume of sewage produced by domestic properties – s. 17ZC(4)
  • measures to reduce the polluting content of sewage – s.17ZC(5)
  • measures intended to reduce the impact of CSO discharges – s.17SC(6)
  • measures intended to promote improvements in bathing water quality in inland waters – s. 17ZC(7).

These repay full reading. The attempt to gather together and strengthen the various strands of possible solutions is laudable, as is the imposition of rather more specific duties on the companies, the Secretary of State, the Environment Agency and Ofwat than are to be found in current legislation.

The Explanatory Notes state that the Bill requires neither a Money Resolution (the only cost to Government is that of the reporting) nor a Ways and Means Resolution (“because it does not authorise new taxation or similar charges on the people”). The cost of implementing its aims would however necessarily be extremely high and inevitably funded largely or entirely by increases in water and sewerage service charges, which would certainly be politically unpopular. It may nevertheless be that the time has come for facing up to the chronic problems on which the Bill shines a light and its Parliamentary progress will be watched with interest. It already enjoys the support of The Rivers Trust, Surfers Against Sewage, The Wildlife Trusts, Blueprint for Water, The Angling Trust, The Chalk Aquifer Alliance and Salmon and Trout Conservation.

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