Government under investigation over handling of combined sewer overflows

It aims to determine whether Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Environment Secretary have failed to comply with their respective duties in relation to the regulation

The recently-formed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has launched an investigation into the regulation of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in England by Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Environment Secretary.

It aims to determine whether these authorities have failed to comply with their respective duties in relation to the regulation, which includes monitoring and enforcement of water companies’ obligations to manage sewage.

One of the OEP’s main functions is enforcement and it has specific and unique powers to deal with suspected breaches of environmental law by public authorities.

It will initially seek early resolution to remedy any issues but has the power to use formal enforcement mechanisms available to it, including taking court action, when necessary.

Data from the Environment Agency recently showed 5% of storm overflows spilled more than 100 times in 2021 and 87% of storm overflows had at least one spill which led to raw sewage entering waterways in England.

The investigation follows a complaint submitted to the Interim OEP by Salmon & Trout Conservation UK.

OEP Chief Regulatory Officer Helen Venn said: “Unsatisfactory water quality is an important, longstanding, systemic issue and one of the most pressing environmental concerns at this time.

“This is a complex area and there is already a great deal of work underway to try and tackle the problem of untreated sewage in our rivers. Our investigation will contribute to that work by providing clarity about the legal responsibilities of the different bodies involved to ensure measures to tackle the problems can be targeted and effective.

“We clearly do not know at this point what our findings will be or where the investigation will take us. It is possible that it could result in enforcement activity and/or in broader actions to improve the legal and/or regulatory systems. Our priority throughout will be to protect and improve the environment.”

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