The Tory government’s new plan to tackle Britain’s sewage spill crisis with targets for water companies to make improvements by 2035 has been branded a “cruel joke” and a “licence to pollute”.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced on Friday that water companies will be required to invest £56bn in capital investment over the next 25 years in a bid to tackle pollution.
The firms will also have to improve how they manage all the sewage overflows discharging next to bathing water by 2035, and improve 75 per cent of the overflows at top nature sites.
The government claimed to be introducing the “strictest targets ever”, but Labour branded the plan weak and said it would not stop water companies treating Britain’s beaches and rivers like “an open sewer”.
The Liberal Democrats also ridiculed Defra’s claim, saying the new deadlines were more than a decade away and did nothing to address water company bonuses and profits.
The party also estimated that by 2030 there will still be 325,000 sewage dumps a year in Britain’s waterways under the “flimsy” new plan, only a slight reduction on current levels.
“This government plan is a licence to pump sewage on to our beaches and in our treasured rivers and lakes,” said Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ environment spokesperson.
He added: “By the time these flimsy targets come into effect, our beaches would have been pumped full of disgusting sewage, more otters will be poisoned and our children will still be swimming in dangerous water.”
The plan also means that taxpayers’ will largely pay for the new infrastructure improvements, say the Lib Dems – despite soaring bonuses for water company bosses in recent years.
The plan published by Defra states that water bill “impacts” from the extra investment will start from 2025. “The modelled bill increases will start in 2025 and would average £12 between 2025 and 2030.”
Farron – who has called for a ban on water company bonuses – said it was “a cruel joke”. He added: “The government is going to hike water bills to pay for cleaning up the mess made by water companies. While they roll in the cash, we swim in sewage – the whole thing stinks.”
Previous analysis by the party found that the average water company executive bonus rose by almost a fifth (18 per cent) last year. The average annual bonus now stands at £670,000.
Labour estimated that Britain still faces another 4.8 million sewage spill events between now and 2035, based on last year’s figures.
Jim McMahon, shadow environment secretary, said: “This document is neither a plan, nor does it eliminate sewage dumping into our natural environment.”
He added: “Britain deserves better than a zombie Tory government that is happy for our country to be treated as an open sewer.”
The government plan published on Friday imposed a new target on sewage discharges – regardless of location – by 2050. Defra said it was part of plan to get £56bn worth of capital investment in better infrastructure and water quality over the next 25 years.
Environment secretary George Eustice claimed it was “the first government to take action to end the environmental damage caused by sewage spills”.
He added: “Water companies will need to invest to stop unacceptable sewage spills so our rivers and coast lines can have greater protection than ever before.”
However, the Defra plan states that the number of sewage discharges will fall by only 44,000 by 2030, which means there will still be 325,000 discharges in 2030.
Tory MP Philip Dunne, chair of the environmental audit committee, welcomed the plan – particularly a new target to make sure 100 per cent of overflows have monitors installed by next year. Dunne said it was crucial that firm action is if the conditions are breached.
The Independent revealed earlier this week that all wastewater companies in England and Wales have failed to meet their targets to tackle pollution or sewage floods.
The 11 largest companies monitored by regulator Ofwat are together facing tens of millions of pounds in financial penalties for last year’s failings amid growing outrage over pollution.
Swimmers have been warned to stay out of the water at more than 50 of Britain’s beaches in recent weeks as water companies continue to pump sewage into the sea. The campaign group Surfers Against Sewage has created an interactive map of the UK coastline, which shows pollution risk warnings.
Boris Johnson’s father Stanley and leading campaigner Feargal Sharkey have both blamed Brexit for making the water pollution problem. They argued that the UK’s exit from the EU makes it less likely Britain will get good regulatory oversight of the water companies.
Earlier this week three French MEPs accused the UK of putting fishermen’s livelihoods and public health at risk by pushing sewage into the Channel, accusing Britain of “repeated negligence … in its management of its wastewater”.
Meanwhile, Farron accused the government of sneaking out the new plan on the day attention would be absorbed by the energy price rise. “They have taken the concept of ‘put out your trash’ to a whole new level,” he said.