Message from the CEO: The Environment Act 2021

December 7, 2021

The long awaited Environment Act has been passed!  

Great news and a big ‘Thank You’ to all those who have campaigned for better water quality legislation for our rivers and watercourses to be included in the Act.

Water pollution barely featured in the original Bill, which at the time was more concerned with abstraction, supply resilience, and drainage plans.  There is no doubt that public and political pressure forced the Government to increase action on water pollution. Campaigns by the Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage along with a private members bill on sewage from Conservative MP Philip Dunne meant the issue shot up the media and political agenda, resulting in a public outcry which forced the Government’s hand.

To satisfy calls for stronger action, amendments to the Bill called for the Secretary of State to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and their adverse impact on the environment and public health. The amendments also require a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England and the costs and benefits of those actions.

With huge volumes of sewage being dumped into rivers and seas – at least 400,000 times in 2020 for around 3.1 million hours and continued media attention, the Government added three further amendments to the bill in August:

  • A new duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis,
  • A new duty on water companies to publish near real time information – within one hour – on the operation of storm overflows, and
  • A new duty directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works.

Following further pressure by the House of Lords the Government added another amendment to  “progressively reduce the impacts of sewage pollution from storm overflows”.  This was passed by 283 votes to 162, albeit that this refers only to storm overflows rather than the whole sewerage system, and asks that only the impacts of overflows be reduced rather than stopping them altogether.


Environment minister Rebecca Pow said the act will allow: “Ofwat (The Water Services Regulation Authority) to issue enforcement notices that can direct specific actions or fine companies up to 10% of their annual turnover.  If we do not see sufficient progress from water companies, Ofwat and the government will be able to take enforcement action and we will not hesitate to do so”.

The act also gives the Environment Secretary the power to maintain and update the list of priority substances used to “assess the chemical status of water bodies, in line with the latest scientific and technical knowledge, now that previous powers to update it (section 2(2) European Communities Act 1972) have been revoked at the end of the transition period”.  In the last assessment of water bodies, undertaken in 2019 and reported in 2020, all of England’s rivers failed to meet legal standards of chemical health.

Ofwat and Water Companies Action

Ofwat has stated that they have “significant concerns” about water companies’ possible noncompliance for sewage treatment under Flow to Full Treatment conditions, that are set in their environmental permits for wastewater treatment works and therefore potentially failing to meet their duties under Section 94  of the Water Industry Act 1991.

Ofwat has called for water companies to make declarations to them highlighting areas of potential failure by 22 Dec 2021.


Improvements will take time and considerable investment but this is real progress.  Thanks again to the Rivers Trust and others who have made these steps possible.

Nigel Davenport

November 2021

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