Keir Starmer has accused the government of “turning Britain’s waterways into an open sewer”, as data showed raw discharges were sent into English rivers 825 times a day last year.
Private water companies have been consistently accused of failing to take action, and the Environment Agency admitted there were more than 300,000 spillages into rivers and coastal areas in 2022, lasting for more than 1.75m hours.
The alarming figures led to calls for the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, to resign, and added to the pressure on Rishi Sunak to do more to tackle the issue.
Clean water has become a politically charged topic in the runup to May’s local elections, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats are mounting campaigns against the government’s record on raw sewage.
Conservative MPs are reporting voter anger about sewage in England’s rivers and coastline, especially in coastal areas.
Starmer said sewage dumping was “ruining so many areas of our country and the Conservatives are sitting on their hands, with no response to it”. He promised “real action on this scandal” under Labour, including automatic fines for sewage dumped by water companies, and to hold water bosses to account for negligent practices.
But a Conservative source said: “Labour failed to monitor water quality when they were in government, and they propose forcing the taxpayer and households to pick up the bill for polluting water companies.”
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said Coffey’s failure to halt discharges meant she had to go. “The environment secretary has let water companies get away with this environmental crime for far too long. It is clear she simply doesn’t care enough to get tough on these polluting firms. Thérèse Coffey must now resign or be sacked so we can have an environment secretary who actually cares about saving our rivers from destruction,” he said.
Figures from the Environment Agency showed a 19% reduction in the number of sewage spills, from 372,533 in 2021 to 301,091 in 2022. However, government sources said this was more than would have been expected as last year was so dry.
United Utilities, which covers the north-west of England, was responsible for 69,000 spills last year, including a site in Cumbria that discharged sewage more than 300 times.
The Environment Agency executive director, John Leyland, said the decrease in spills in 2022 was “largely down to dry weather, not water company action”.
Several Conservative MPs said they feared that Sunak’s government needed to get a better grip on the issue of sewage spills before the May polls or risk losing more council seats to Labour and the Lib Dems. “It’s one of the major issues in my postbag,” said one Conservative former frontbencher with a coastal seat.
A Conservative backbencher who joined a recent meeting of Tory MPs with a water company and the Environment Agency said there was a real awareness of the damage the issue could cause.
“In general, Defra seems to be on this, but it’s important we show that we understand it’s an issue,” the MP said. “It’s a very emotive subject, and our opponents are making the best of it, not always fairly. That’s politics, but it is something people raise on the doorstep, especially in rural and seaside constituencies.”
At the end of last year, the Labour party revealed that sewage discharges had more than doubled from 14.7 per overflow in 2016 to 35.4 in 2019, coinciding with Coffey’s decision to cut funding for environmental protection during her tenure as water minister.
Coffey continues to face significant pressure after a troubled start to her new role, having broken the government’s own statutory deadline for publishing water quality targets; announced a 36-year delay to cleaning up waterways; told parliament that meeting polluting water bosses wasn’t her priority; and been heavily criticised for announcing a storm overflow reduction plan containing no reduction measures.
Campaigners highlighted that despite the failure to stop sewage spills, water companies continued to pay out vast sums to shareholders.
Izzy Ross, of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Throughout 2022, water companies continued to pour sewage into our rivers and seas with indefensible frequency. Meanwhile, over the same period, these companies doled out a combined total of £1bn to their shareholders … Their negligence is unparalleled, and the people and wildlife of the UK are suffering the consequences.”
She added: “Therésè Coffey continues to show a lack of interest in tackling this crucial issue for our waterways and water users. She is failing to keep polluters in check. The environment minister must protect the environment.”
Megan Corton Scott, a political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “We need an environment secretary who can stand up to the water companies through introducing solid laws and beefing up regulation to get sewage out of our waters – not just keep lining shareholder pockets.”
A Conservative source said opposition parties had “no sensible plan to tackle this”. They said Labour’s plan would not work and the Lib Dems’ suggestions would “require replacing a combined sewer network that would stretch 2.5 times around the world, or building additional storage to fill 40,000 Olympic swimming pools – overnight”.
They said: “It was a Conservative government that introduced comprehensive monitoring of storm overflows, resulting in the largest criminal and civil investigations at over 2,200 treatment works. We’ve put in place strict new targets on water companies, introduced the largest infrastructure programme in their history – a £56bn capital investment – and will raise the cap on fines so that polluters pay.”
Rebecca Pow, an environment minister, acknowledged that the volume of sewage being discharged was “unacceptable” and said the government was “taking action to make sure polluters are held to account”.
“By bringing in comprehensive monitoring – up from just 7% in 2010 to the most extensive level ever, now being at 91% – this government and its regulators have enabled the extent of sewage discharges to be revealed, so that we are better equipped to tackle this challenge,” she said.
Reports on Friday night said the government was looking to increase the fines on polluting water companies with the Times saying that penalties could be “unlimited”.
Pow said the government had set “the strictest targets ever on water companies to reduce sewage discharges”, and was requiring them to deliver an estimated £56bn to improve their infrastructure in order to tackle the problem.
A spokesperson for industry body Water UK said: “This is … the fourth consecutive year we have seen a fall in the number of spills from each storm overflow. This is the start of the journey and to ensure we continue to see these numbers move in a positive direction water companies are bringing forward £56bn of investment to replumb England, fix storm overflows and protect our rivers and seas.”
United Utilities said: “We set out to reduce the number of spills from storm overflows by at least one-third by 2025, compared to the 2020 baseline, and our performance in 2022 means we have met that target. We know there is much more to be done. With the largest combined sewer network in the country and 28% more rainfall in our region than the UK average, we have ambitious plans to deliver further improvements through one of the biggest environmental programmes in the country.”
Insiders say that for many years the water industry ignored warnings about the growing scale of spills from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) – storm pipes that allow rainwater, untreated sewage and runoff to discharge into waterways.
But water campaigners were increasingly raising the alarm as they monitored the situation, and when the Guardian broke the news in 2020 that water firms had discharged raw sewage into England’s rivers 200,000 times in 2019 it was no longer possible for the government and the companies concerned to ignore the situation.
At the same time, the Guardian revealed that England’s privatised water firms had paid £57bn in dividends since 1991.
Repeated revelations have highlighted the issue that despite growing public fury, the government – in particular Defra – and its regulators appear unwilling to take firm corrective action. Last summer, George Eustice, then environment secretary, finally announced that water companies would have to invest £56bn over 25 years in a long-term programme to tackle storm sewage discharges by 2050.
Under government plans, by 2035 water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water, and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high-priority nature sites. By 2050, this will apply to all waterways. Critics have called the plans inadequate.