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Restoring rivers and seas

Good Law Project launches case to force water companies to take urgent action against sewage discharges in rivers and coastal waters
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Winter surfer walking through mist in Cornwall

Good Law Project has launched a new legal challenge alongside a leading environmentalist and Essex oyster farm, against the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Ranil Jayawardena, to compel him to rewrite the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan and impose tougher targets on water companies.

In England alone, there are around 14,500 storm overflows in operation to stop sewers becoming overwhelmed.

What are storm overflows?

Storm overflows discharge a mixture of surface run-off and raw sewage into rivers, waterways and coastal waters – but should only be used occasionally following exceptionally heavy rainfall.

Instead, water companies have been using this measure with alarming frequency. Last year alone, storm overflows discharged untreated sewage 372,533 times over a period of 2.7 million hours, according to figures from the Environment Agency.

The government published its widely criticised plan to address this in August. It gives water companies a deadline of 2035 to improve all storm overflows discharging into high-priority nature sites. Water companies have until 2050 to take care of the remainder. 

‘We have all been watching with horror as water companies dump sewage in our rivers and along our beaches with very little accountability. This is one of the biggest scandals of our times, but the Government has no plans to stop it anytime soon. This is not just incredibly dangerous; we believe it is also unlawful. We believe the ancient common law Public Trust Doctrine obliges the Crown – these days the government – to protect our seashores and rivers for future generations.’

Director of Good Law Project

Impacts of sewage discharges

With the government’s plan, sewage discharges will continue with unacceptable frequency, duration and volume for decades to come.

This is likely to cause significant harm to biodiverse ecosystems, contaminate food sources and pose a serious health hazard to recreational users of England’s beaches and waterways.

Good Law Project is ‘delighted’ to launch this case alongside Richard Haward’s Oysters and surfer and activist, Hugo Tagholm. It is also in discussions with other potential claimants, who may be added to the claim later.

‘Surfing and other water sports are booming – keeping people active and healthy as they explore and enjoy our rivers and coastlines. Sadly, water companies are continuously using these precious natural, community spaces as a dumping ground for their industrial waste. I’ve seen raw sewage spewing into our seas and rivers, I’ve surfed at the mouth of polluted rivers and swam across sewage plumes. These giant companies are destroying our natural heritage all for their short-term profits.

‘I’m sickened that water companies have been getting away with blue murder for so long – with the health of our rivers and seas in such a perilous state. It’s time for change. It’s time for a decade of investment to restore our rivers and seas to sparkling health. They are robbing coastal and river communities of their livelihoods – who wants to swim, surf or play in polluted waters?’

Surfer and activist

Grounds for the case

Good Law Project considers that the plan is insufficient to meet the Secretary of State’s legal obligations on three grounds:

1. The plan fails to discharge the Secretary of State’s legal duty under the Water Industry Act (1991), as amended by the Environment Act (2021).
2. The plan breaches various rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and is unlawful under the Human Rights Act (1998).
3. The plan is contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine, which provides ancient common law rights for people to fish, gather food and navigate our shared waters. The Public Trust Doctrine is built upon the principle that the state has a fiduciary duty to safeguard vital natural resources for the benefit of both current and future generations.

In bringing this case, Good Law Project wants the government to rewrite its plan and bring forward the deadlines for water companies to act.

‘For eight generations the Haward family have grown oysters in Essex and sold them throughout the UK and beyond. Our livelihood balances completely on water quality. We work hard to protect and nurture the environment we rely on to produce our oysters, and the relentless dumping of sewage into our seas risks destroying something so precious.

‘Just as we invest in our business so that my daughter and future generations can be proud of and continue our legacy, so too should water companies be held accountable and invest in ensuring British waterways are flourishing and safe ecosystems that future generations can enjoy.’ 

Director of Richard Haward’s Oysters and eighth generation oysterman

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