High court challenges government’s ‘weak’ plan to reduce sewage discharges | environment

Campaigners are set to take the government’s plan to reduce discharges of raw sewage into rivers and seas to the high court, arguing it does not go far enough.

The case, which will be taken up by the Good Law Project, will put the storm surge plan under close scrutiny. It will argue that the plan will lead to raw sewage being dumped into waterways for decades to come and fails to protect the majority of coastal areas designated as ecologically sensitive.

Following mounting pressure from the Guardian and other media, campaigners and some politicians, the government produced the storm overflow scheme to force water companies to invest in stopping raw sewage discharges. However, the program gives water companies a deadline of 2035 to reduce the amount of sewage flowing into bathing waters and ecologically important areas and by 2050 to stop discharging sewage elsewhere. After being heavily criticized as too weak, the plan will be challenged in court after campaigners were given permission to seek a judicial review.

England has around 14,500 storm overflows, which are supposed to be used in extremely heavy rainfall to stop the sewage system backing up into people’s homes. But evidence uncovered by the Guardian, and evidence to MPs, showed that water companies are dumping raw sewage into rivers and seas even during periods of dry weather.

Environment Agency figures show that in 2021 storm surges discharged raw sewage 372,533 times over 2.7 million hours.

The legal case is being taken by the Good Law Project on behalf of the Marine Conservation Society, oyster farmer Tom Haward and surfer and ocean activist Hugo Tagholm.

Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: “This could be the most important environmental law case in recent history. We hold – and the high court now agrees that the point is arguable – that the English common law contains a principle that the natural environment must be protected, must be held in trust, for future generations.’

Tagholm said blue spaces so important to wildlife, people and communities should not be treated as landfills. “We should be free to swim, surf and enjoy our rivers and coasts without fear of sewage pollution,” he said.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We have set the most stringent targets ever set for water companies to clean our water, as well as requirements to deliver the biggest infrastructure program in their history to tackle the of sewage leaks.

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“Record fines of more than £102 million were imposed in 2021 following successful prosecutions. We’re making it easier for regulators to fine and hold water companies to account – a consultation will start this spring.

“We will continue to look for ways to go further and faster and are determined to hold water companies to account for poor performance.”

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