‘The streets flow with raw sewage’: Yorkshire’s wastewater disaster

'Places that used to have bathing status now have signs up saying there is raw sewage in the water' says one local resident - Charlotte Graham

When you think of north Yorkshire, you’d be forgiven for imagining picture-perfect rolling green hills dotted with sheep, bustling market towns filled with independent shops and cafes, and scenic film locations like the dramatic limestone of Malham Cove which starred in the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1).

Yet for the residents living in the Skipton and Ripon constituency, the reality is rather less picturesque. The area has endured 600 sewage spills into their town and village streets in the last five years.

The figure emerged during a council meeting in September 2023, when a Yorkshire Water representative was questioned about the problem.

Local outrage

On a sunny autumn day in September, tourists bustled along the Leeds-Liverpool canal and through Skipton’s cobbled streets in the shadow of the medieval castle, unaware of what lurked beneath the water’s surface.

Jeff Holmes, a Skipton resident, was on the towpath, watching two swans shepherding their six cygnets along. “I think it’s disgusting that sewage goes into the river and that there’s no reason for it,” he said. “Yorkshire Water should have spent the money years ago. If they say that they’re short of money, shouldn’t the top guys be taking less? It shouldn’t be going on our water bills. They should reach in their own pockets.”

“Parents have stopped their children going down to the river to paddle because it’s a mile downstream from the sewage farm where there are releases even on dry, hot days,” said Councillor Andy Brown, Green Party representative for Aire Valley, who lives in nearby Cononley. “I received a complaint from the mother of a fifteen-year-old boy who had been cycling through Snaygill [near to Skipton] over the school holidays and had been disgusted by raw sewage on the path on one of the driest, hottest days of the year.

Sewage works at Skipton
Sewage works at Skipton: 'Legally, water companies are allowed to dump untreated sewage into rivers, lakes and seas only in times of ‘exceptional rainfall’ – but it seems there are differing interpretations of this' - Charlotte Graham

“It’s quite clear that sewage dumping has become routinised with the assumption that whenever it’s cheaper or more convenient, Yorkshire Water will do it. The Environment Agency is not holding the water companies to account.”

Jemma McConville-Roe, 39, used to swim twice a week in the river before work, but has stopped going into the rivers recently. “The amount of sewage makes them no-go zones,” she said. “I never swim when it’s raining or for two or three days after, and I never put my face in the water. I check websites that show where sewage has been dumped in all the different points along the river Aire and Wharfe.

“The thought of sewage swimming around my face is gross,” she continued. “I worry that I could get E. coli or an eye infection. It’s always in the back of my mind. The water quality has gone downhill – places that used to have bathing status now have signs up saying there is raw sewage in the water. I have a seven-year-old and I used to let her paddle in the river with me, but I won’t let her now. I’ve signed what feels like a million petitions but no one is paying attention.”

Charlie Rigarlsford, a student who lives in Skipton, reported a sewage spill on Rectory Lane after heavy rain last year. “It stank, there was raw sewage – poo and toilet paper – piled up on the pavement,” he recalled. “It was disgusting. It was left like that for two months. You couldn’t use the pavement and had to walk in the road. Yorkshire Water said it was the result of a collapsed sewer but I don’t know why it took them so long to sort it out.”

Bishop Monkton is a small village of pretty cottages near Ripon and Harrogate with a population of 800 and a babbling beck running through it that is home to an annual duck race. When there is heavy rain, the streets flow with raw sewage.

“Earlier this year four man-hole covers all blew up at the same time,” said one local resident. “There was a nasty smell, sewage in the beck, which is outside the primary school, and there was raw sewage in the street. It was like that for three or four hours.”

Jemma McConville-Roe
'I worry that I could get E.coli or an eye infection' says Jemma McConville-Roe, who used to swim twice a week in the rivers before work - Charlotte Graham

Councillor Nick Brown, the Conservatives and Independents representative for Wathvale and Bishop Monkton, explained: “When there is heavy rain, the combined sewers have to have an outflow and when that occurs, sewage invariably comes onto the streets. In parts of Bishop Monkton, it backs up and the drain covers fly off and out comes the sewage. At the bottom end of the village, Hungate Lane, the overflow is put into the stream and that flows very near the primary school so if any children want to play in the beck there is a likelihood of sewage being in that stream. It’s inevitable that if sewage is in the waterways, people will be poorly.”

Climate change brings more fear for the village. “At the moment [the sewage spills] only happen once a year but you’ve only got to look around the world at the moment, we are going to get more and more heavy rain,” said one concerned mum.

The neighbouring villages of Markington and Burton Leonard have the same problems. Locals are concerned that it will worsen if developers get permission to build more houses, which would put even more pressure on the small Victorian pipes. “We’re concerned about the volume of sewage and we don’t want it adding to,” said one woman. “Our pipes and our system are full. We have a lot of outflows from the sewage plant.”

Parents have stopped their children going down to the river to paddle because it’s a mile downstream from the sewage farm
Parents of children in Skipton and Ripon have stopped their children going down to the river to paddle - Charlotte Graham

What or who is to blame?

Locals are unanimous in their belief that they have been failed by Yorkshire Water. “Yorkshire Water have not done their duty over the last few years,” said one man who has lived in Bishop Monkton his whole life. “They should have been investing on a continuous basis over the last 20 years.”

Councillor Andy Brown said: “It’s clear that these releases are not happening due to ‘exceptional circumstances’ as the law allows, and they come with a significant health risk. Hundreds of new houses have been built without improvement to the sewage system over the last five years. In Skipton, over 1,000 houses have been approved with no improvement to the existing sewage system. In Silsden, some of the new houses approved are being built directly on the flood plain.”

A spokesperson for Yorkshire Water said, “We understand sewage escapes can be distressing for customers. Over 85 per cent of the incidents in Skipton and Ripon in this five-year period were as a result of blockages within the sewer network, which can be caused by unflushables such as wet wipes or fats entering the network from properties, or even roots growing into the sewers.

“We invest heavily in our wastewater network across Yorkshire and in the five-year period to the end of 2025 will spend £83.7m on projects to reduce sewage escapes from the network. We have also invested in 40,000 innovative sewer alarms across the region, including in the Ripon and Skipton areas, deploying the technology to alert us to problems much earlier so they can be resolved before wastewater escapes the network. We are looking to expand this to 300,000 alarms in Yorkshire’s sewers in the coming years. Our teams will continue to work hard to deliver improvements in the next two years and beyond as we continue planning for the next five-year business plan between 2025 and 2030.”

A wider problem

Yorkshire is not unique. This is part of a wider problem across the country. Legally, water companies are allowed to dump untreated sewage into rivers, lakes and seas only in times of ‘exceptional rainfall’, such as extreme flooding, but it seems there are differing interpretations of this. And just last week the Office for Environmental Protection found that the government and water regulators may have broken the law over the regulation of sewage releases.

Earlier this year, Defra released its figures for 2022, revealing that raw sewage was dumped into rivers and coastal areas by private companies over 301,000 times – that’s over 800 spills every single day.

Tessa Wardley, Director of Communications and Advocacy at The River Trust, said, “Not a single river in England or Northern Ireland is classed as in good overall condition. Our rivers are suffering from nutrient, plastic, chemical and sewage pollution. Climate change is exacerbating the pressures that our rivers are facing, pushing many towards the edge of ecological collapse. The government and regulators have overseen the decline and polluters have not been held to account.”

The privatisation of the water companies in England and Wales in 1989, under Margaret Thatcher’s government, generated £7.6billion and created 10 regional water companies (RWAs) who took control after a spell where the UK was known as the “dirty man of Europe” for the pollution of its waterways and for its sub-standard drinking water. It was hoped that privatisation would vastly improve this. But now, England’s nine water companies hold £60bn debt and are accused of prioritising paying dividends over infrastructure investment.

Yorkshire Water paid out £62.3m in dividends to its parent companies in the Kelda Group, according to its annual report, after making a profit of £544m in 2022/23.

Before Brexit, the UK was part of the Water Framework Directive, which required member states to achieve standards set in the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EQSD) by 2027. There is now concern that the targets set as part of this will not be met. Defra insists that date remains.

A Defra spokesperson said, “The volume of sewage discharged is completely unacceptable. That is why we are the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle this issue and drive more investment, stronger regulation, and tougher enforcement to transform our water environment.

“Our strict targets, set out in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction plan, will see the toughest ever crackdown on sewage spills. They will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £56billion capital investment.

“Water companies will also publish action plans for every storm overflow in England, something the Environment Secretary has personally pressed for.”

birdseye view of Yorkshire river
'Not a single river in England or Northern Ireland is classed as in good overall condition,' says Tessa Wardley, Director of Communications and Advocacy at The River Trust - Charlotte Graham

An Environment Agency spokesperson said, “We are unequivocal that sewage pollution across the country – including in Yorkshire – is unacceptable. We are holding the industry to account on a scale never seen before. This includes significantly driving up monitoring and transparency from water companies in recent years, as well as taking tough action against those companies which are breaking the rules including fines of more than £150million since 2015. Our new powers to deliver penalties, which are quicker and easier to enforce, will also act as an important deterrent against criminal behaviour.”

What can be done to improve the state of our rivers and prevent picturesque villages being overrun with raw sewage?

Wardley is championing The River Trust’s The Big River Watch which concludes on 24 September. “Public interest in river health is high, and communities are rightly angry about the state that their local rivers have been allowed to get into. Big River Watch allows the public to get involved in a meaningful way, by helping collect the data and evidence needed to drive positive change for our rivers.

“Get involved by downloading the Big River Watch app to your mobile phone and spend 15 minutes watching your local river and answering the questions within the app about what you see. From wildlife and pollution, to water colour and plant growth, the observations will give us a huge and important snapshot of river health.”