On 31 March 2022, Defra published the draft Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan (SODRP). The press statement describes this as “a step change in how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage.” Water companies will face “strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the ecological harm any storm sewage discharges cause to the environment and significantly reduce discharges to protect public health.”
Fighting talk, certainly: but how do local riparian experts and councillors see this panning out in reality when the target is to tackle only 52% of overflows by 2040?
The Rivers Trust issued its own statement within hours of the announcement. The body’s CEO Mark Lloyd professed himself to be “disappointed that this plan lacks the urgency we so desperately need. This plan is going to need strong input from civil society and NGOs like The Rivers Trust if it is going to outpace the twinned climate and nature crises we’re currently facing. We want to have rivers where people and wildlife can thrive, but the target timelines in the plan are far too slow – I want to see this my lifetime!” He goes on to point out that aiming to tackle only just over half the overflows by 2040 is “unacceptable.”
He goes on to say that “we need to see urgent and aligned targets for everyone with responsibilities in managing storm water, including local authorities and housing developers. Let’s not forget that the problems with storm water management start with planning, and we need to tackle the problem at source.” The problem with the last point is that there are thousands of planning permissions where building has yet to start and thousands more in the system. Changing and updating local plans to give these policies real teeth will take years and proceed at different paces in different areas. At times one despairs as to whether the time taken to come up with a national initiative and then to have it implemented by the local bodies is on so glacial a scale as to make any progress almost impossible. It’s like being told “the doctor will see you in ten years.” And this is without the problem of whether Ofwat and the Environment Agency have their own teeth sharp enough to enforce the regulations: that’s a case of being told that “a police officer will be with you in ten years.”
West Berkshire Councillor Steve Masters echoed this point: “We need bold ambition,” he told Penny Post on 31 March. “This includes real investment in the infrastructure by the water companies and real levels of enforcement by the EA and OFWAT of the lawbreakers. Chronic degradation of staffing numbers and a reluctance to hold the water companies to account is creating a biodiversity time bomb and a very real public health crisis.” He also backed up the River Trust’s view that the 525 by 2040 timetable is “nowhere near as ambitious as it should be.”
His fellow WBC Councillor Howard Woollaston (whose Lambourn ward is at the opposite, upstream, end of the River Lambourn from Steve Masters’), also speaking to Penny Post on 31 March, is equally concerned by the proposal’s “serious lack of ambition”, while conceding that “there is obviously no quick fix.” He added that he will be raising with this with Thames Water and the Environment Agency at the next Lambourn Valley Flood Forum in April.
Charlotte Hitchmough from Action from the River Kennet (ARK) told Penny Post much the same thing, stressing that her organisation “would like to see a more ambitious pace. The timeline is too slow and our rivers are suffering. We need planners, local authorities and water companies to all take responsibility to do better. Storm water must be managed better.”
These four comments show a considerable overlap of opinion. All feel that there is a problem now and that more action is needed more quickly and by a variety of different bodies (including householders who can be encouraged and incentivised to do more to keep rain that falls on their property from entering the foul-water system).
Defra might argue that this is about as fast as they can go and that the job of formulating a policy and getting all the necessary bodies in some kind of alignment is herculean. Meanwhile, however, sewage continues to flow into SSSI- and SAC-designated waterways. As well as damaging the rivers, if this continues to happen with comparative impunity then it also damages the reputation of the entire system which is designed to protect them.
The photo at the top off the post is taken from the above-mentioned statement from The Rivers Trust