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FoI request shows water companies are failing to co-operate over 1,968 sewage outfalls


sewage outfall pipe

The Environment Agency is unable to properly regulate 1,968 sewage outfalls because water companies are failing to provide information to them about exactly what is coming out of these pipes, a freedom of information request by the Angling Trust and Fish Legal has uncovered.

Several thousand outfalls were given ‘temporary’ deemed consents at the time of privatisation of the water industry in 1989 (see note 1), because there were no legal permits for these discharges at all. The Environment Agency is now trying to draw up bespoke environmental permits so that they can take enforcement action against water companies in the event that discharges from the remaining poorly-regulated sewage outfalls pollute rivers, lakes or coastal waters.

However, in order to draft modern permits which will help them meet water quality standards, the Environment Agency require information from water companies concerning the frequency and content of their discharges.

The information received shows a very patchy response from the water companies with some, such as Anglian Water, United Utilities and Yorkshire Water, not having made much progress at all, whilst Wessex Water and South West Water have made the most progress. The delay in progress is because companies have repeatedly failed to provide the information required by the Environment Agency.

The water companies have been given a deadline by the Environment Agency of the end of January 2016 to provide full information about these discharges. If they fail to meet the deadline, the Angling Trust and Fish Legal plan to use their newly secured right to request environmental information directly from the water companies (see note 4) to find out exactly how much raw sewage is being discharged from the remaining 1,968 sewage outfalls and how regularly.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust & Fish Legal, said: “We will be watching closely to see if any companies fail to meet the Agency’s January deadline. It is simply unacceptable that these huge companies have failed to provide the necessary information a quarter of a century after these supposedly temporary consents were granted by Parliament.

"Anglers, swimmers and watersports enthusiasts have a right to know what is polluting their waters and we expect the Environment Agency to be regulating the industry properly.”


1. ‘Temporary’ deemed consents were applied to intermittent discharges from Combined Sewage Overflows (overflows which carry a mix of raw sewage and rainwater that is discharged into rivers, lakes, into estuaries and along the coast when it rains heavily), ‘emergency’ discharges from sewage pumping stations and other discharges from sewage treatment works. These discharges can seriously affect fisheries and can cause fish kills. Fish Legal currently has 11 cases and advice matters involving pollution from sewage treatment works on behalf of its member angling clubs and fishery owners.

2. In 2009, the Environment Agency applied blanket conditions to ‘temporary’ deemed consents to bring in environmental protections for receiving waterbodies. However, in 2010 the water companies appealed those conditions and the Planning Inspectorate decided in favour of the water companies and removed certain conditions that would have prevented the discharges causing a significant deterioration in water quality standards or other adverse environmental impacts. For more information on the appeal click here

3. The Environment Agency wants to bring the consents for intermittent discharges from sewage outfalls into the Environmental Permitting regime to ensure that the discharges do not jeopardise water quality and fisheries.

4. At the beginning of 2015, Fish Legal won a lengthy legal battle against the water industry and the Information Commissioner and changed the law so that water and sewerage companies in England and Wales are now subject to the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. For more information, and to read a copy of the Upper Tribunal decision in this case click here

5. The Angling Trust and Fish Legal have been campaigning on this issue for over a decade on behalf of anglers, angling clubs and fishery owners. This work is funded by membership subscriptions. Joint Angling Trust and Fish Legal membership packages are available for clubs, fisheries and other categories. Individuals can support the work of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal for as little as £2.50 a month or £25 a year. To join or renew membership click here

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