Grubby truth about failure to clean up nation’s rivers

“England’s rivers and inland waters are as polluted as they were five years ago.” 

“Defra officials claimed they had made “a significant effort in preventing further deterioration”.”

“A sewage spill has occurred every two and a half minutes in England and Wales since 2016, according to Environment Agency figures obtained by Labour.”

Adam Vaughan, Environment Editor www.thetimes.co.uk 

England’s rivers and inland waters are as polluted as they were five years ago, according to a government report, with campaigners calling the lack of improvement a “shocking” indictment of environmental policy.

Officials have admitted that no progress has been made on a key water pollution pledge to ensure three quarters of rivers and other bodies of water are close to their natural state.

Ministers promised four years ago to raise the share meeting a “good” ecological status to 75 per cent by 2027.

Yet the annual report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which was published last week, found that the figure remained at 16 per cent in 2021, unchanged since 2017.

Ecological status is a metric assigned using various water flow, habitat and biological quality tests. Most water bodies in England, 63 per cent, are ranked “moderate”.

In defending the lack of progress, Defra officials claimed they had made “a significant effort in preventing further deterioration” and that the figures showed the “high degree of challenge in meeting water targets.”

Labour said the standstill showed the government “can’t be trusted to clean up our water system”. The Environment Agency said water companies were to blame for a “shocking” environmental performance in 2021. The Conservatives and Labour both used their party conferences to promise tougher action to clean up rivers.

A Defra spokeswoman said: “We are going further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance the health of our rivers and seas.”

The Wye’s tributary, the River Ithon in Powys

The Wye’s tributary, the River Ithon in Powys

A sewage spill has occurred every two and a half minutes in England and Wales since 2016, according to Environment Agency figures obtained by Labour.

Overburdened sewage works and pollution from agriculture are the main reasons that meeting a crucial target for improving the health of rivers has proved intractable.

The government’s goal is for 75 per cent of water bodies in England to have achieved good ecological status by 2027. But with almost half the time to reach that target having passed, the figure was 16 per cent last year, the same as in 2017.

Feargal Sharkey, the former Undertones singer and now a campaigner against the pollution of rivers, said the lack of progress was unacceptable. He said: “The utterly chaotic, collapsing government we have surrounding us continues damaging the environment.”

At the Labour Party conference, Sharkey criticised the failure to clean up rivers. He described the standstill on lifting the ecological status of rivers to “good” as a “shocking indictment” of government policies.

The campaigner noted that the 75 per cent by 2027 goal, part of the government’s 25-year environment plan, is weaker than the 100 per cent by 2027 target the UK had under the Water Framework Directive when a member of the EU. “It’s clear the government has no ambition,” said Sharkey.

The Conservatives and Labour used their party conferences to make bold promises to improve the state of rivers. Ranil Jayawardena, the former Tory environment secretary, said he would raise civil fines from a maximum of £250,000 to £250 million.

Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, has promised to impose mandatory monitoring of all sewage outlets and give the Environment Agency greater power and resources for enforcement.

He told The Times: “A Labour government will use the levers of power to hold reckless water bosses to account and implement measures to clean up our water system.”

A decline in water pollution monitoring is partly to blame for the failure to improve the ecological status of waterways. The Rivers Trust said that the number of ammonia monitoring sites had halved from about 8,000 in 2013 to 4,000 last year.

“It’s no surprise we’re not seeing an improvement. We can’t expect the patient to recover if we’ve walked out and turned the lights out in the ward,” said Christine Colvin, director for advocacy and engagement at the charity. Weak enforcement is another reason for the lack of progress, Colvin added.

Sir James Bevan, head of the environment agency, told the House of Lords last month that government funding cuts over the past decade had affected the agency’s ability to regulate water pollution. He said a “lack of boots on the ground” had meant not enough officials had been able to check sewage spills in person. Research appears to support his concerns. The average number of prosecutions brought against water companies dropped by 15.4 per cent between 2000 and 2010, and 2011 and last year, according to analysis reported this week.

Lord Benyon, the environment minister, said yesterday that the government would “continue to work with regulators on environmental and their other commitments”, after Ofwat fined 11 water companies last month.

Rankings released this week reveal how the different water companies are faring on their environmental performance. When looking at areas of private land and gardens flooded with sewage, the Consumer Council for Water found that Anglian Water, Severn Water and Thames Water performed best, while Northumbrian Water and Southern Water were the worst.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Our Storm Overflows Reduction Plan has brought in the strictest targets on sewage pollution and requires water companies to deliver their largest ever infrastructure investment — £56 billion capital investment over 25 years.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.