Activists take water regulator Ofwat to court over sewage in English and Welsh rivers

The England and Wales water regulator, Ofwat, has unlawfully failed to stop water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers, campaigners say in a legal case.

Sandra Laville 

The environmental campaign group Wild Justice is seeking a judicial review of Ofwat’s failure to monitor and take enforcement action against water firms that discharge raw sewage into waterways.

In documents filed to the high court, Dr Ruth Tingay, director of Wild Justice, said: “We are particularly concerned that a continued lack of action on Ofwat’s part will lead to a collapse in biodiversity, both within rivers and coastal waters, and, as a knock-on effect, in the areas surrounding those waters. This will be disastrous for nature conservation generally and wildlife in particular.”

The legal action is supported by investigations by Wild Justice and Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp), which used environmental information requests and freedom of information laws to reveal, according to the legal action, that Ofwat takes no active steps to monitor and enforce its legal obligations to reduce and stop sewage discharges. When serious concerns are brought directly to its attention, the legal case says, Ofwat has not taken action.

Wild Justice says the failure to act is having a serious impact on watercourses affected by sewage plants that do not conform with the urban waste water treatment (UWWT) regulations and regularly empty raw sewage into freshwater. They say the regulator has a legal duty under the Water Industry Act 1991 and the UWWT regulations to monitor and enforce water and sewage companies’ actions.

The consequences are extreme, creating and maintaining excessive nutrient levels that are highly detrimental to the health and biodiversity of those watercourses, with wider implications for the environment and human health of freshwater and marine ecosystems, they say.

They say anyone whose hobby or profession brings them into contact with potentially infected water – surfers, rowers, anglers and wild swimmers for example – is at risk.

Raw sewage was discharged into rivers 375,000 times over more than 2.7m hours in 2021, according to Environment Agency data.

Carol Day, of Leigh Day solicitors, representing Wild Justice, said: “Our client is bringing this case because it wants action to be taken to protect our waterways. Wild Justice is of the view that had Ofwat fulfilled its statutory duty to ensure sewage treatments works are fit for purpose in the 21st century, the widespread and damaging discharge of untreated sewage into our rivers and seas could have been averted.”

Wild Justice is funding its actions through a crowdfunding appeal.

An investigation by MPs on the environmental audit committee earlier this year called for a step change in regulatory action by Ofwat and investment by water companies to restore rivers to good ecological health, protect biodiversity and adapt to a changing climate.

MPs said: “The water regulator, Ofwat, has hitherto focused on security of water supply and on keeping bills down with insufficient emphasis on facilitating the investment necessary to ensure that the sewerage system in England is fit for the 21st century.”

Only 14% of rivers are in good biological health. There has been no improvement in the state of English rivers since 2016, despite government promises that by 2027 75% of English rivers would be rated good.

A public outcry at the scale of raw sewage discharges, which are supposed to take place only after exceptional rainfall, has forced the government to act, saying the level of releases is totally unacceptable. It is consulting on a plan to reduce discharges, promising that by 2040, 40% will have been eliminated. But campaigners say the plan lacks urgency.

Ofwat said: “Ofwat’s focus has always been, and continues to be, ensuring companies act in the interests of customers and the environment. We take our responsibilities on the environment extremely seriously and have consistently pushed companies to do the same.

“While we share Wild Justice’s concern with the potential impact of water companies’ wastewater activities on the environment, their characterisation and understanding of Ofwat’s work is incorrect.

“We drive improved environmental performance from water companies and hold them to account to deliver on their obligations. This includes significant monitoring and information gathering on water companies, and holding them to account through our enforcement powers, our price review process, our annual reporting and more.

“Where companies fall short, we act – over the last five years, for example, we have imposed penalties and payments of over £250 million. In addition, we have a live investigation into wastewater treatment works which is looking at potential non-compliance in all water and wastewater companies.”

Is EDDC “foot dragging” over Humphreys inquiry or following “Judicious process”?

Three members of the public: Alderman Roger Giles, Mark Hawkins (a contributor to the “Watch”) and Councillor Jess Bailey all raised questions, given the evidence, about how long it is taking to set up the inquiry into Humphreys. They did this during public speaking at the beginning of yesterday’s (8 June) Cabinet meeting. A report on possible ways forward is scheduled for the July Cabinet “the earliest opportunity”, which will include advice from counsel. 

It is worth listening to the first 25 minutes of the meeting to hear the public speakers and the subsequent discussion. Especially the explanation over why it is taking a long time from an uncomfortable looking CEO Mark Williams (who also raises questions of costs and timescales),  and Leader Paul Arnott reading out the latest correspondence from the police.

It is clear from listening to the discussion that councillors are committed to ensure that this is not kicked into the long grass. But Owl does not underestimate the task. 

It is the lack of institutional transparency to date, for example over Simon Jupp use of a property belonging to Humphrey that has turned this case into a potential can of worms. There will be many who would find obfuscation and administrative delay advantageous.

Let’s hope Mark Williams hasn’t consulted “Jarndyce and Jarndyce”

So many questions, too few answers.

Fury at government after council overruled on Surrey Hills gas drilling

Campaigners and the Liberal Democrats have condemned the government after a minister overruled a Tory-run council to approve gas drilling on the edge of the Surrey Hills, despite accepting the scheme would cause harm to the natural landscape.

Under this government nowhere will be safe from drilling. – Owl

Peter Walker 

The decision, formally announced in a written statement by the housing minister Stuart Andrew, gives the green light to three years of exploratory drilling at a site near the edge of the Surrey Hills area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).

The site is in the South West Surrey constituency of Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, who strongly opposes the project.

Campaigners said the decision showed an “obsession” with finding new fossil fuel developments, and that it would be likely to provoke protests.

The plan was rejected by Surrey county council, but a subsequent public inquiry recommended it should go ahead, a decision which was then assessed by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which approved it.

It means the energy company UK Oil and Gas will be allowed to operate a non-fracking gas well near Dunsfold, south of Guildford, close to the boundary of the AONB, with permission for a new road junction, access route and fence around the boundary.

The decision – made by Andrew after Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, recused himself because his constituency is in a nearby part of Surrey – accepted the drilling would involve “a significant level of landscape and visual impacts from the proposal”, including the loss of hedgerows, something mitigated by the finite period of operation.

Noting that allowing the project contravened Surrey’s own guidance, the decision also conceded “it has not been demonstrated that the site has been selected to minimise adverse environmental impacts”.

The proposal, it added, “would result in harm to the landscape character and appearance of the area and degrade the qualities of the setting of the AONB”, saying that while the impact on the AONB would be limited, the area “is of a high sensitivity”.

The ministerial decision said “limited” weight should be given to any local economic benefits, but that the overall assessment was “exploration and appraisal are a necessary part of mineral development and without it, the currently acknowledged benefits of production cannot be realised”.

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While the decision is unconnected to fracking, permission for an exploratory gas drilling site in such a location will resurrect memories of prior protests against fracking schemes.

Following significant local opposition, along with concerns about the possibility of earth tremors, fracking has been paused in the UK since 2019. In April, ministers announced a study into its safety, raising expectations that the practice, which is popular with some Conservative MPs, could be resumed.

Greenpeace said ministers had an “unhealthy obsession with finding new fossil fuels”. Doug Parr, its UK policy director, said: “With this decision the government is completely undermining local democracy, the planning laws that are supposed to protect our designated landscapes and the climate crisis in one fell swoop.”

Tom Fyans, the head of policy at the countryside charity CPRE said the move was “an absurd decision that’s guaranteed to provoke fury and despair”, and would be likely to prompt mass protests. He said: “It’s extraordinary, given the urgent need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, that the government sees fit to green-light a gas field and damage the setting of an area of outstanding natural beauty.”

The decision will be seized on by the Liberal Democrats, who are campaigning heavily in the so-called blue wall – Tory-held commuter belt seats mainly around London where discontent with the Conservatives, and especially with Boris Johnson, makes them politically vulnerable.

While Hunt’s seat is relatively safe, the site closely adjoins the Guildford constituency, where the sitting Tory MP, Angela Richardson, has a majority of just above 3,000 over the Lib Dems.

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said it was “shameful that the Conservatives have ignored the concerns of local communities” and approved the scheme. “Michael Gove must reconsider this reckless decision which risks doing irreparable damage to our treasured countryside while undermining efforts to tackle the climate emergency,” he said.

UK Oil and Gas was contacted for comment.

Councillors fear precedent set after homes plan approved on protected coastline

Fears of a precedent that will encourage more homes along the coastline have been voiced after plans for a dwelling were approved. At its May planning committee, Torridge District Council approved an application from Mrs Susan McEldon for the erection of a detached dwelling and garage at her property, Koversada, off Diddywell Road in Appledore.

Lewis Clarke

The applicant’s son, James McEldon, spoke at the meeting: “My wife and I are a local couple with a vision to build our forever home. Both myself and my wife were born and bred in the local area. My wife is from the lovely village of Hartland, and I was raised in the picturesque village of Appledore. We’re both very much in full support of the local community.

“I have worked as a branch manager for a builder’s merchant for the past five years, and my wife is a police community support officer serving local communities for the past 14 years.

“This build would be our forever home to raise a family and be in the catchment area of local education and facilities that we like to support, such as shops, pubs, and restaurants, all within walking distance of the property.

“This would be a sustainable build that is aesthetically pleasing to the local area with thought put in through my building knowledge put towards the build energy efficiency where possible, such as solar panels and electric car charging points.

“The plot is easily an adequate size to accommodate both the existing property of Koversada and this new build.”

He said the new home would allow them to assist in caring for their elderly parents as they grow older and avoid having to send them to a care home.

“We are struggling to find a property nearby,” he said. “We looked at the new builds recently at Pitt Lane in Appledore and were informed by the site agent that all of the first phase has already been snapped up within just one week. So many houses in this area are sadly bought for holiday accommodation.”

Agent Shorne Tilbey added: “This application, if approved, could be controlled by suitable conditions, so, therefore, the new dwelling would not be considered an open market dwelling, therefore removing problems such.”

However, some councillors were against the scheme. Councillor Peter Hames (Appledore, Green Party) said: “It’s very important to stress that you have an application here for a dwelling in an area of undeveloped coast which is protected from development under strategic policies.

“The position is that development which detracts from the unspoiled character, appearance and tranquillity in the area should not be permitted. I should emphasise that reference to the area includes the proposed development site and the countryside surrounding it.”

Cllr Hames said the proposal would introduce a new dwelling in the area with no justifiable function or requirement.

“A perusal of the site and the plan for the application confirms the findings of your officer and policies would not be satisfied by the proposed development,” he said.

“The proposed house would be built next to a Victorian building, in a different and contemporary style and with different materials. Therefore, it would strongly detract visually from the present scene. It would occupy much of the garden space and would encroach on the amenity of Koversada, and the occupants would generate more vehicular traffic on a narrow lane which enters a blind junction just yards from the site.

“The new dwelling, built in a different style to the present one, would also adversely impact on the wider, undeveloped coast as well as the AONB and SSI, an impact exacerbated by the dwelling in close proximity to the present house.”

He continued: “I gather that the house is necessary so son and wife can look after her and her husband in their old age. I certainly sympathise; however, the planning officer has shown their provisions do not apply to this application.

“Approval of this would set a precedent encouraging more applicants of similar or other special family circumstances to apply for houses in the undeveloped coastal and open countryside. In addition, of course, the suggested purpose and justification for the dwelling can only be a temporary situation as, unfortunately, it is inevitable that occupants of Koversada will not always be there.”

Councillor Peter Christie (Bideford North, Green Party) agreed: “This is an open market house, and no local need being specified. If they want to put a house in for local needs, I have no problem, but as it stands at the moment, this doesn’t agree with any of our policies. Once the current owners pass on, you have two houses, and for locals, you’ll end up with two houses you have to buy at once. It would be unaffordable to anyone locally.”

However, the majority of councillors backed the scheme.

Councillor Len Ford (Appledore, Non-Aligned), who called in the application for debate, following a recommendation from the office to refuse, stated: “I believe there is a balance to be struck reference social gain and to provide a family support network. Surely me/or the committee could impose conditions or ties (new house and existing must go together should future use or sale happen).

Councillor Dermot McGeough (Bideford North, Conservative) agreed: “I propose we accept this application. The benefit for the family is paramount to local people. We have locals not being able to come to the village and being moved out of the area, but I believe it is a sustainable development which doesn’t impact the amenity of neighbours. I don’t know the family, but I believe that we should not refuse this.”

Councillor Chris Leather (Northam, Independent) added: “This is one of the difficult ones, where you want to help house local families, but do we think that the tilted balance is in favour of this development because there’s no huge detrimental impact on the area because this is already within the curtilage of a dwelling.

“I don’t think another modern dwelling close by will have any detraction.

“To me, if this was a field where a small plot of land off the lane, I would have a different view about it but because it is within the curtilage of an existing dwelling and unless there are any benefits in not doing this.”