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High Court to hear challenge to sewage discharge plan


Sewage is discharged into rivers across the UK on a daily basis. (Photo from The Rivers Trust.)

The High Court has given permission for a hearing against the government’s storm overflows discharges reduction plan.

The storm overflows discharges reduction plan was published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in August last year. It gives water companies a deadline of 2035 to reduce the amount of sewage flowing into bathing water and areas of ecological importance, but until 2050 to stop dumping sewage elsewhere.

The legal action has been brought by the Marine Conservation Society, fishmonger Richard Haward’s Oysters, and surfer/activist Hugo Tagholm, with support from the campaign group Good Law Project.

The hearing at the High Court will challenge secretary of state Thérèse Coffey over her department’s plan.

The claimants want the government to make water companies accelerate their investment in sewage treatment works and provide stronger protection for coastal waters.

England has around 14,500 storm overflows in operation to stop sewers becoming overwhelmed. They allow a mixture of surface water and raw sewage to be discharged into rivers and coastal waters but should only be used occasionally following exceptionally heavy rainfall.

Environment Agency data shows that in 2021 storm overflows discharged untreated sewage 372,533 times with an aggregate duration of 2.7 million hours (more than 300 years).

The date for the hearing at the High Court has yet to be decided.

Good Law Project director Jo Maugham KC said: “This could be the most consequential environmental law case in recent history. We contend – and the High Court now agrees 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.”

Marine Conservation Society chief executive Sandy Luk said: “We’re now one step closer to compelling the government to re-write its storm overflows reduction plan, so that the ocean and its inhabitants really are protected from untreated sewage dumping. Raw sewage will continue polluting our seas until action is taken. Being granted permission to proceed with this case is an important milestone in achieving our vision for a cleaner, better protected and healthier ocean.”

Tom Haward, operations manager of Richard Haward’s Oysters from West Mersea in Essex – an 8th generation oysterman – said: “Having clean and safe waterways is something we shouldn’t have to fight for or even ask the courts to consider. But in 2023 we are in that position. I’m happy the High Court has given permission for the case to be heard and  I hope it will be another step toward making water companies accountable – truly accountable – for their actions.”

Hugo Tagholm, former chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “The sewage scandal is now headline news. The writing is on the wall for water companies. Their pollution that was for so long hidden in our rivers and streams now flows in full view of the public. A sign of decades of neglect and complacency. The blue spaces so important for wildlife, people and communities should not be treated as dumping grounds for these corporations. We should be free to swim, surf and enjoy our rivers and coastline without fear of sewage pollution.”

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