Water companies plan biggest modernisation of sewers ‘since Victorian era’

The biggest modernisation of sewers “since the Victorian era” is planned by the water industry, as companies apologised for not acting quickly enough to tackle spills.

Water UK said plans for the largest ever investment in sewage networks will cut overflows by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared to the level in 2020.

It comes as firms in England apologised for failing to effectively tackle spills in rivers and beaches.

Environment Agency figures earlier this year showed there were a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day.

Ruth Kelly, chair of Water UK, said: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear – we are sorry.

“More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.

“We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”

The organisation said “£10 billion – more than triple current levels” is ready to be invested, “enabling the biggest modernisation of sewers since the Victorian era, and the most ambitious programme on sewage spills in the world”.

Under plans to be unveiled in full this summer, companies will be able to improve their sewer networks and treat overflow spills with less impact on rivers and seas, Water UK said.

An independent data hub to inform the public of overflows and the rolling out of new swimming areas is also planned.

In a letter apologising to its customers, Yorkshire Water said it is investing £180 million in reducing discharges from storm overflows over the next two years.

Chief executive Nicola Shaw said: “Tackling overflows, which were designed into the system as a relief valve, is a priority for us, but it is also a significant task.

“In Yorkshire, we have over 2,200 overflows and we know replumbing the whole of Yorkshire is not a quick fix as it would be both significantly disruptive and costly to customers.

“But, further investment from our shareholders is helping us tackle this issue.”

Last month, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said the Government would introduce legislation to put plans to reduce storm overflows on a “new legal footing”.

The Government’s Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, published in August 2022, aims to eliminate sewage dumping by 2050 while cutting discharges close to “high priority” areas by 75% by 2035 and 100% by 2045.

High priority areas include Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation and other environmentally sensitive areas.

A spokesperson for Ofwat, the water regulator, said: “We welcome the apology from water companies and this now needs to be turned into action.

“We have been pushing water companies to do more, faster, for their customers and for our waterways and beaches. We look forward to seeing the plans and how companies will step up performance.

“Through our regulatory process, we will ensure they deliver the best possible outcomes over the next five years and beyond.

“It is important that companies continue to engage clearly with the public on how this proposed investment will benefit communities and improve quality of life.”

Environmental Audit Committee chairman, and Conservative MP, Philip Dunne, said: “People are quite rightly sick and tired of the repeated reports of sewage flowing into our rivers and seas, and we must put a stop to it.

“Today’s initiatives, if delivered fully, could go a long way to addressing these understandable concerns and returning the country’s precious waterways to good health.”

Alan Lovell, chairman of the Environment Agency, said: “It is right that the industry is honest, accountable and shows the tangible steps it is taking to drive the improvements that we all want to see.”

Water minister Rebecca Pow said: “This apology by the water industry is not before time and I welcome it.

“The Government has put the strictest targets ever on water companies to reduce sewage pollution and demanded that water companies deliver their largest ever infrastructure investment – £56 billion. I am pleased that they are now taking action to deliver on this, but there is still a great deal more to do.