Campaigners are to make a high court challenge to the government’s plan to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers and seas in England, arguing it does not go far enough.
Cases to be taken to court by the Good Law Project and the charity Wild Fish, will put the storm overflow scheme under detailed scrutiny. They will argue that the plan will lead to raw sewage being discharged into waterways for decades to come and does not protect the majority of coastal areas designated as ecologically sensitive.
After growing pressure from the Guardian and other media, campaigners and some politicians, the government produced the storm overflow plan to force water companies to invest in stopping raw sewage discharges.
The scheme gives water companies a deadline of 2035 to reduce the amount of sewage flowing into bathing water and areas of ecological importance, and until 2050 to stop dumping sewage elsewhere. After it was heavily criticised as too weak, the scheme will be challenged in court after the campaigners were granted permission to seek a judicial review.
England has about 14,500 storm overflows, which are supposed to be used in exceptionally heavy rain to stop the sewage system backing up into people’s homes. But evidence found by the Guardian, and evidence to MPs, has shown water companies are routinely dumping raw sewage into rivers and seas even in periods of dry weather.
Environment Agency data shows in 2021 storm overflows discharged untreated sewage 372,533 times over a period of 2.7m hours.
One legal case is being taken by Good Law Project on behalf of the Marine Conservation Society, an oyster farmer, Tom Haward, and a surfer and ocean activist, Hugo Tagholm.
In another case to run alongside, Wild Fish is also challenging the storm overflow plan.
Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, said: “This could be the most consequential environmental law case in recent history. We contend – and the high court now agrees the point is arguable – that the English common law contains a principle that the natural environment must be protected, must be held in trust, for future generations.”
Tagholm said the blue spaces so important for wildlife, people and communities should not be treated as dumping grounds. “We should be free to swim, surf and enjoy our rivers and coastline without fear of sewage pollution,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We’ve put the strictest targets ever on water companies to clean up our water, plus requirements to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in their history to tackle sewage spills.
“Record fines of more than £102m were handed out in 2021 following successful prosecutions. We are making it easier for regulators to enforce fines and hold water companies to account – a consultation will launch this spring.
“We will continue to look at ways to go further and faster and we are determined to hold water companies to account for poor performance.”