As you know, I have focussed my campaigning efforts in Westminster to make a real difference in improving the water quality of our rivers.
So last month I welcomed a significant set of measures announced in a comprehensive Plan for Water, which pulled together a wide range of policy initiatives across Government to create a fresh strategy to improve water quality of our rivers and sustainability of water supply.
The new Secretary of State for DEFRA is determined to tackle the long-term challenges posed by under-investment in our drainage and supply networks underground, which have not kept pace with development above ground for 60 years.
The need to do so was graphically illustrated again at the end of March by publication of the latest sewage discharge stats for 2022. While these showed a 19% reduction in the frequency of discharges from treatment works and combined storm overflows across England and a 34% reduction in duration compared with 2021, this was primarily due to reduced rainfall during the year. So the pressure remains on water companies to get to grips with preventing these wholly unacceptable routine sewage discharges.
I believe these new measures will make a material difference and have given this Plan a broad welcome - not least since these proposals accept many of the recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee in our seminal report last year into Water Quality of our Rivers. The Plan also reflects several campaign themes of the Conservative Environment Network contained in their Water Manifesto which I endorsed late last year.
These include giving greater power to regulators, the Environment Agency and Ofwat, to issue unlimited fines on water companies for breaching their permits; and for those fines to be ring-fenced in new Water Restoration Funds to improve water quality. There are currently over 2,000 cases of such breaches by six water companies being investigated by regulators which could lead to fines or criminal prosecution.
Regulators will also have the power, which we had also called for, to link senior executives’ remuneration and shareholder dividends to environmental performance.
It is not all about water companies either, farmers have a role to play, both reducing nutrient leakage and managing supply of water. So, I welcome further funding for slurry storage and encouragement for buffer zones for pollinators and tree planting along waterways, as well as the consultation on reducing planning barriers for on-farm reservoirs and creating wetlands to help integrate flood planning.
Locally I am encouraged by Severn Trent's engagement with local communities, businesses, and farmers to raise awareness about the importance of protecting and improving the ecosystem of our rivers. It's vital that we work together to ensure the sustainability of our natural resources for future generations. By partnering with local groups, Severn Trent is seeking to work with local community groups in improving the health of our rivers.
Advice and some financial support is becoming available for farmers to help them reduce their impact on waterways. Farmers have a vital role to play in managing pesticide and fertilizer use and improving soil management practices. STWs "Get River Positive" campaign aims to fix its own discharges and encourage sustainable agriculture practice in its catchment.
STW plans to invest £1.2 billion over the next five years to improve water quality, reduce leakage, and increase resilience to climate change. Locally £4.5 million of this is being invested in the next two years in improving treatment works and Combined Sewer Overflows along 12 miles of the River Teme between Leintwardine and Tenbury Wells to get the river to high water quality standard.
We as consumers can also play our part by stopping flushing wet wipes down the loo and putting filters in washing machines to stop microfibres from our clothes being flushed out. There will be a consultation on banning plastic in wet wipes to reduce the risk of blocking sewers.
There is still much more to do to clean up our rivers and coastlines, including reducing surface water runoff from roads and developments, designating more bathing waters, and tackling nutrient pollution. But the measures set out in the Plan for Water represent a credible and wide-ranging strategy to tackle the scourges of pollution and underinvestment that have blighted England's waterways for too long.