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Water Foul

Water Foul

This article looks at the issue of 'Combined Sewer Overflows'

They are intended to act as a 'safety valve' on those exceptional occasions when sewage treatment works and storage facilities can't cope with the volume flowing into them, and they overflow the mixture of raw sewage and rainfall into rivers and the sea.

The problem is that what are intended to be 'exceptional circumstances' are becoming frequent circumstances, and prolonged sewage discharges are regularly polluting our rivers with human waste, killing wildlife, (in some cases completely) and endangering people's health.

Our report looks at the background to this problem, then at the investigative reporting by national - and local - media like ourselves who have exposed what's really going on.

This article has 4 main sections: Introduction; Background; The Pressure Builds; and a Conclusion.

It examines each of these, but chiefly reports in detail on investigative reporting undertaken by national and local media.

Those wanting a shorter read can either read this synopsis, or skip straight to the Conclusions at the end.

We begin with an Introduction - that uses examples of local water contamination by raw sewage from Combined Sewer Overflows, in our Bathing Waters, Liggard Brook, and Park View Playing Fields before explaining it is still a national problem.

Next we look at the Background - first at How Combined Sewer Systems Came Into Being, before examining the matter of Temporary Deemed Consents that were granted for the (then) new water companies to pollute the UK's waters with sewage.

Next we look at an Incredibly Important Case Brought by an Organisation Called 'Fish Legal' which was reported in The Guardian newspaper. Specifically, this case overturned a refusal by water companies (and the Information Commissioner) to provide information under the Environmental Information Act about the extent of pollution from Combined Sewer Overflows. More widely it re-set the law of precedent on who is, and who is not, 'a public authority.'

We then look at the Shocking Data the Water Companies Were Obliged to Publish as a result of this case, before considering Where That Decision and the Information it Released Left Us.

In the main section of the article, we look at How the Pressure for Change has Built Over Time, looking at commendable investigative journalism undertaken firstly by the BBC's Countryfile Programme who used the River Windrush at Bourton-on-the-Water as an example of the wider national problem.

It also examined an action against the UK government that led to the Secretary of State writing to require all water companies to have monitoring equipment installed on their Combined Sewer Overflows by 2020.

Next we look at our own efforts - What Counterbalance Has Published, and what has happened to our bathing waters since we published 'The Great Bathing Water Con.' in 2015.  We also now publish a sewage flow schematic which we believe shows the locations of United Utilities' Combined Sewer Overflows in the Lytham St Annes area, and at comments they made at a recent meeting of Fylde Councillors.

Then we focus on comments from The World Wide Fund For Nature as reported by the BBC and about the poor standard of the UK's rivers, asserting none of our rivers is safe to swim in because of sewage pollution, and concluded that this was very unlikely to change without tougher regulation.

Next we look at a Major Investigation by The Times Newspaper which one of our readers drew to our attention. The article re-stated the case made by Countryfile that no English river can be certified safe to swim in, adding that much of the blame for this lies with the Water Companies and that the Environment agency is simply failing to do its job.

Two issues that struck us forcibly in this report were the shocking reduction in the number of water quality tests for all pollutants - from  almost 5 million in 2000 to just 1.3 million in 2018.

The other shocking revelation was that the Environment Agency was operating an 'enforcement undertakings' scheme which allowed water companies to allowed to repair environmental damage, accept liability, and make a charitable contribution rather face a prosecution.

Stung by the criticism made in 'The Times' reporting, the Chairman of the Environment Agency responded, but in our view she simply just doesn't get it.

Coming up to date, we also report the Investigation Undertaken by Channel 4 Television, whose North of England Reporter Care Fallon reported shocking sewage pollution on the River Wharfe in Yorkshire, before broadening out to look at sewage pollution across the UK. She interviewed water scientists and  someone from Yorkshire Water.

Back in the C4 studio, Jon Snow interviewed the Deputy Director of Water Quality at the Environment Agency and we report quite a lot of that interview. We think our readers will be shocked and we add our own observations on what she said at the end of it.

Finally, in our Conclusions section, we give a brief reprise of these investigations before trying to look forward to whether the future might see a proper solution put in place, or whether it will remain a fudge of sludge.

We hope for the former, but expect the latter.


Regular readers will know we have more than a passing interest in the disgraceful pollution of our bathing waters and rivers that is still going on despite the protestations from the Environment Agency and United Utilities.

Excepting for those of us in the North West, the great majority of the rest of the country has already sorted out its sea-based bathing waters.

But here in the NW, if you took away the collusion that exists between the water company and their - supposed - enforcers, to fiddle the Bathing Waters test results by choosing to literally 'discount' (i.e. to disregard) test results taken in wet weather, the results would be different to those that have been declared.

And what's more, from what we can see, there's nothing of significance in the pipeline that will provide the many more massive Detention (temporary storage) Tanks that are needed or, alternatively, the more permanent solution that would see more sewage treatment works to remove and treat the sewage from our drainage system before returning it to rivers and the sea.

Whilst the fiddled statistics are still massaging the bathing water results to avoid any beaches being declared 'poor' (with a consequential requirement for 'prohibition of bathing' notices), the underlying problem of insufficient treatment works and temporary holding capacity here in the NW (which is being overwhelmed by additional housing - and rainfall - faster than it can be provided) means the underlying situation is getting worse not better.

Sewage pours onto Park View Road Playing FieldsReaders only need to think of Park View Road Playing Fields in Lytham where a 'sewage fountain' was caused in the middle of the playing field.

That went on to create a huge lake of human sewage-infested water.

This happened because the storage tank was full, and the tank's automatic overflow into the Liggard Brook came into play.

But the overflow's outlet to the Liggard Brook became blocked, and the sewage started to back up along the pipe network.

Eventually, the pressure from upstream of the Playing Fields forced a large cast-iron manhole cover - which takes two men to lift it - to be 'blown off' and a small 'geyser' discharged the contents of the combined sewer onto the playing field.

Nationally, the sea-bathing waters elsewhere in the UK are largely sorted out, but attention is now being directed across the country to the river networks where (as we have been banging on about for years), combined sewer overflows cheerfully discharge at will into rivers and brooks, killing wildlife and risking the health of local people.

And it's not only outside Fylde this is a problem.

We've heard Lytham's Cllr Roger Lloyd say (most recently at Fylde's Environment Health and Housing Committee on 7 January this year) that the Liggard Brook that runs through Lytham is....

"...basically being used open sewer. There's no doubt about this.'

And we think that's a pretty good (if shameful) description of it.

We're going to take a more detailed look at the Park View situation in a future article, but today, we're looking mostly at the broader picture of combined sewer overflows that discharge into the freshwater river system in Fylde and more widely across the UK.

We're very grateful to an organisation called 'Fish Legal' who have changed the interpretation of 'information law' to everyone's benefit, and to the BBC and Channel 4 for the investigative work they have reported on these matter, and to the Guardian, Sunday Times and other national newspapers who have run their own investigations.

We will be relying on research undertaken by these organisations for some of our data. Elsewhere we use our own research.


 How Combined Sewer Overflows Came About

We've addressed the background to the Combined Sewer problem in previous articles, but as a primer here, we note that the industrial revolution in the North West concentrated more people into smaller living areas than had ever happened here before. With no formal town planning in place, properties were built close together and often without adequate sanitary arrangements.

We've been playing 'catch up' almost ever since.

Eventually, substantial underground sanitary and sewage systems were built. The Georgians and (especially) the Victorians did a terrific job in building this sewage network.

It was, as with almost all Victorian engineering, well sufficient for the populations they had at that time, and for what they envisaged in the foreseeable future.

But they had no idea of the population growth that would produce the number of people that would make demands of it today.

They had no concept of the vast areas of roads and housing estates that would be built.

Nor could they envisage future governments being unwilling to do what they had done, if the need arose in the future.

  • In 1750, the UK population was estimated to be between 5 and 6 million (source: The Population History of England 1650 to 1850)
  • By 1850 it was around 16 million
  • By 1950 it was 50 million
  • Today it is 67 million, with 74 million estimated by 2050

So not unreasonably, in the Georgian and Victorian ages, the drainage system, (catering for less than a quarter of today's population) connected all the 'domestic' drains emanating from any business or property into one large sewer network.

That included waste from washbasins, toilets and so on, together with the water collected from hard surfaces like roof gutters and paved areas.

It was called a Combined Sewer Network.

Sadly, what hasn't been done so well since that time was the building of enough waste water treatment works to treat the volumes of waste water that we have now and, in lots of cases, the Combined Sewer network ended in a pipe that simply discharged the water sewage mix into a watercourse, or into the sea.

By the mid 1960s, drainage engineers could see that as the sewage network stood at that time, it wasn't able to cope with the growth in population and housing.

But, whilst some additional sewage treatment works were built, rather than substantially enlarge or replace the Georgian-Victorian network, they mostly adopted a less costly and less disruptive option which - through the Town Planning system - required all new properties to have separate sewage and rainwater drains.

Houses built under this new arrangement were supposed to have sewage going into the old (Victorian) system, and the 'Surface Water' (as they christened it) went into a new surface water network, and that exited directly into rivers and the sea without any treatment (because it was only or mostly rainwater that didn't need treating to remove any effluent).

So, from around 1960, two things happened. The demands made of the Victorian sewer system continued to grow as the population grew, and toilets and showers etc from new houses continued to be added to it, (albeit this growth was more slow than it would otherwise have done).

The other effect was that the sewage in existing Combined Sewer Networks became more 'concentrated' with sewage being a greater proportion of the mix - as surface water (that would otherwise have 'diluted' the sewage) was diverted into a separate and alternative network of surface water drainage.

For a range of reasons, whilst the work of the 1960s drainage engineers postponed the inevitable, it failed to solve the problem, and eventually, with sea and river waters becoming more and more polluted, the authorities had to take action and began the process that ended in the EU's Bathing Waters Directive and the British legislation that implemented it here.

That heralded enormous change in the treatment of waste water, and although we acknowledge that great strides have been made, they have all been, and still are, are nowhere near enough.

Before the 1989 privatisation of the Water Companies, the Government and local government (mostly through what were known as 'Water Boards') had been responsible for water supply and drainage.

But privatisation transferred the provision of water and wastewater services throughout in England and Wales from the State - to the private sector.

Private sector companies were then delivering the national water and drainage services, with a Government agency (now the Environment Agency), to 'regulate' them.

We've put 'regulate' in quotes here, because as regular readers will know, we don't believe they do anything like a good enough job. In fact we now routinely call them 'The Useless Environment Agency'

 The Matter of Temporary Deemed Consents

We now know a bit more about what's been going on from work initiated by an angler's organisation called 'Fish Legal.'

Their campaigning work was reported in 'The Guardian' and from that, we know that around the time of privatisation, the UK water companies were granted a status called 'Temporary Deemed Consent' in respect of sewage.

In effect, this was a 'get out of jail fee' card for the water companies which allowed them to continue to pollute UK waters with sewage from Combined Sewer Overflows.

These consents were given to the water companies because there were no legal permits for their polluting discharges.

'The Guardian' reported that just over 4,000 of these 'Temporary Deemed Consents' were initially granted.

They also said that since water privatisation, the Environment Agency had been pressing the water companies to provide information about their Combined Sewer Outfalls

We believe this was not so much to stop the process happening, but rather to regulate it, by abandoning the Temporary Deemed Consents, and bringing the pollution within Environment Agency's 'Environmental Permitting Regulations' (which are, in effect, a similar license to pollute).

It seems to have been thought that this approach would be a more achievable solution - at least it would be better that nothing at all - and it might lead to the most gross of Water Company pollution events having action taken.

But faced with either inability or unwillingness on the part of the water companies to provide this information, in 2009, the Environment Agency tried to impose a blanket condition to bring these 'Temporary Deemed Consents' within their regulation.

But the water companies appealed against this action, and their appeal was upheld by the Planning Inspectorate.

The Guardian reported that the water companies said they would prefer to disclose them on a voluntary basis rather than being required to do so under regulations.

Quite.   You don't have to be a genius to see why they would say that.

But nothing significant happened .

 That was, Until 'Fish Legal' Stepped In.

In a judgement of 2015, the gloriously named 'Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber)' considered two 'lower ranking' decisions that had been taken.

These were (Case No: GIA/0979/2011): Fish Legal versus The Information Commissioner, United Utilities plc; Yorkshire Water Services Ltd, and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

And (Case No: GIA/0980/2011): Emily Shirley versus The Information Commissioner, Southern Water Services Ltd, and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The Judgement explained that:

"Fish Legal is the legal arm of the Angling Trust. On 12 August 2009, it asked United Utilities Water plc and Yorkshire Water Services Ltd for information relating to discharges, clean-up operations, and emergency overflow.

Mrs Shirley is a private individual. On 19 August 2009, she asked Southern Water Services Ltd for information relating to sewerage capacity for a planning proposal in her village.

All three companies denied that they were under a duty to provide the information under EIR.'

EIR here means 'Environmental Information Regulations' and they are similar to the Freedom of Information Regulations. The judgement continued:

'Both Fish Legal and Mrs Shirley complained to the Commissioner.

By letters dated 12 March 2010, the Commissioner replied, explaining that as the companies were not public authorities for the purposes of EIR, he had no power to adjudicate the complaints.'

The Information Commissioner did however say that if either party wanted to pursue the matter further and they approached the Information Tribunal to adjudicate on the matter, the Commissioner would not object.

The parties did appeal, and the Tribunal dismissed their appeals, relying on a previous precedent decision, but it gave permission to appeal to the Upper Tribunal.

By the time the matter reached the Upper Tribunal in 2015, the information they had requested had actually been supplied to Fish Legal and Mrs Shipley

So when the case came before Judge Jacobs in the Upper Tribunal, the only issue that remained was whether the information had been provided within the time allowed - and that depended on whether the companies were public authorities or not and whether they had provided it within the time allowed.

This particular point of law caused a lot of legalistic argument and our more avid readers can follow this link to find the full judgement.

Within the Judgement, the section about 'Is it a public company?' contains some wonderfully detailed considerations of who was responsible for what as the transition from a state entity to a private water company took place but you need a stronger legal brain than ours to follow most of the arguments in it.

However, cutting to the chase, Judge Jacobs heard the two cases together and decided that in both cases, the lower hearing had made an error in a point of law.

He set their earlier decisions aside and remade the decision to say that the water companies concerned WERE public authorities and their response to those requesting the information had been late.

And on 29 January 2016, the Information Commissioner (who up to then had only published a 'Guide' to the regulations), added something called 'Guidance' to it - by way of a 12 page 'clarification' which, as the Information Commissioner says...

".... is part of a series of guidance, which goes into more detail than the guide, to help public authorities fully understand their obligations and promote good practice.

This guidance explains to organisations how to apply the definition of a public authority for the purposes of the EIR."

Fish Legal's ground-breaking decision has had a big impact on subsequent requests for information under the Environmental Information Regulations about who is, and is not a public authority, but that's another story.

 So What Did the Water Companies Publish?

Fish Legal's original request was met during the legal case, and it showed what progress each water company had made in reducing the number of 'Temporary Deemed Consents' from the 4,000 or so that existed at that time

Progress in reducing Temporary Deemed Consents

Whilst some, like 'Severn Trent' had clearly made huge progress, others - such as United Utilities in our area - had done nothing at that time.

But given the anticipated Fish Legal decision - and presumably the knowledge of what they would have to disclose - some water companies had privately gone into overdrive with 'reviews' - and were able to deflect criticism by saying they were already 'reviewing' the Temporary Deemed Consents.

We don't think this was the extent of the problem though. Because - as far as we have been able to ascertain - those original 4,000 or so Temporary Deemed Consents were only the Combined Sewer Overflows that were known to exist at the time.

We believe there were others that operated without officially recorded knowledge, and we're still doubtful a complete list of them exists even today.

For as long as it lasts online, readers can follow this link to see the Guardian's reporting of the matter as at January 2016 

 So Where Did That Leave Us?

Well we STILL had the wholly ridiculous situation where Combined Sewer Overflows are discharging into brooks, streams and rivers (which flow into the sea), and in some places, the CSO's flow directly into the sea - under a Temporary consent granted 30 years ago, or where the Useless Environment Agency has issued a permit to allow the companies to continue to pollute the water environment.

The real problem underlying all of this is the enormous cost of stopping it happening.

Frankly, this all goes back to the Government's failure at the time of Water Privatisation where they fudged and hid the issue by granting the 'Temporary Deemed Consent' for the new water companies to continue to pollute our waters in order to hide the Government's failure to have dealt with it up to that time.

Some might even have seen water privatisation was a way of dumping on the new water companies.

To their credit, the water companies (and even United Utilities in this area) HAVE spent very large sums of money in dealing specifically with the sea bathing water problems (but if they hadn't, there would almost certainly have been prosecutions under Bathing Waters legislation).

But even then - as we showed in 'The Great Fylde Bathing Water Con' back in 2015, IT WAS NOWHERE NEAR ENOUGH, to solve the problem in time for the Bathing Waters regulations being implemented, so the water companies, United Utilities and the UK Government colluded to discount and disregard the test results.

In one case (Fleetwood) they retrospectively disregarded half of all the water samples that had already been taken, so as to avoid the Bathing Water failure that should have been declared. And Fleetwood was not alone on the Fylde Coast as our Bathing Waters Con report showed.

Since then, that collusion has been further refined to produce the same effect.

Even today (see later) we're seeing these refined dis-counting measures continue to sidestep the samples that should be counted, but are (literally) dis-counted.

Elsewhere, the publicity spin-machine that was conceived at the doublespeak 'Turning Tides' conference (which was not so much about turning tides on the beach, but turning the tide of public opinion) held in Blackpool has been in overdrive ever since in an attempt to divert attention from the real problem. This culminated in their 2017 claim of:

"Cleaner Seas in the North West: 11 rated Excellent; 14 Rated Good; 6 Rated Sufficient and 0 Rated Poor"

Readers should note this is not a claim to "clean seas" - only "cleaner" seas and even then, that's using what we regard as fiddled test results to make the results less bad than they would otherwise be.

Any of our readers who think we're being over-dramatic here need only to consider the official report buried as an 'information item' at the end of Fylde's Environment Health and Housing Committee of 7th January this year where it was reported that St Annes North Beach dropped from 'Good' to be classed as 'Sufficient' - and that was only after three test samples had been discounted.

We've not worked out the stats ourselves yet, but we suspect that if all the samples that were taken had been counted in the results - as they should have been - then St Annes Bathing Water could well have been a 'Fail' - as has happened before.

The official report to Fylde said:

"The Environment Agency has been working with Fylde Council again this year to make daily predictions of pollution risks at our bathing waters during the 2019 bathing season.

These inform the public of increased pollution risk through signs displayed at bathing waters.

These warnings are short term pollution events that have clearly identifiable causes which are not normally expected to affect bathing water quality for more than approximately 72 hours.

Where pollution risk forecasts have coincided with statutory bathing water sampling and if all conditions are met there is a potential for discounting samples at the end of the season.

A maximum of 3 samples can be discounted per bathing season.

  • Three samples have been discounted at St Annes Pier in accordance with Article 3(6) of the bathing water directive during the 2019 season, and
  • three samples were discounted at St Annes North bathing water. One high result (taken on 31/07/2019) was not able to be discounted at St Annes North because no signage was displayed at the bathing water when the sample was taken.

    The correct PRF warning information has to be displayed at the bathing water when the statutory sample is taken in order for it to be discounted.

    This high result had a negative impact on the overall percentiles although the classification would have still been sufficient had this result been eligible for discounting"

As we exclusively reported in the first year of reporting for St Annes North Bathing Water

"38 out of 80 samples have been counted to give St Annes North a current classification of 'Excellent'

If all the samples had been counted the result would have been 'Poor' which means the bathing water had failed.

But by disregarding two years results it moved up to 'Good' - and by discounting individual samples within the two years they HAVE considered, the result has been pushed into the realms of fantasy - and is now described as 'Excellent'

For the next three years a similar system of discounting bad test results at the end of the season was used, but even then, St Annes North dropped down from 'Excellent' to 'Good' for three years, before this year dropping yet another category to 'Satisfactory' - which is just one step above 'Fail'

It's still simply not good enough that outside the North West, the bathing waters issue has mostly been solved, and we're continuing to languish with the adverse health effects of untreated sewage in the sea and in our rivers.

This problem began as the Government's failure to solve the problem before privatisation, and to solve it now will still take massive sums of money which can only come from Government.

And just like the blocked sewer outlet at Park View Playing Fields locally, pressure is building nationally for action to be taken on Combined Sewer Overflows that are a major contributory factor to sea and river pollution.


Nationally, attention is moving from Sea Bathing Waters (which are in much better order outside the North West), to River Bathing Waters.

Some UK rivers (or perhaps sections of rivers) also have designations as being 'Bathing Waters' and these are also subject to the water testing regime for coliform and streptococci bacteria and the test results must meet the required minimum standard.

What seems to be happening now is that local groups are campaigning to have more rivers classified as 'Bathing Waters.'

Success in this endeavour would result in such rivers (or parts of them) being subject to mandatory water testing and (most likely) action to identify and correct any Combined Sewer Overflows and other forms of pollution.

So public campaigning pressure is building for more rivers to be designated as Bathing Waters, and such groups are keen to generate publicity for their cause.

This, in turn, is picked up by the media and reported.

 Countryfile Investigation - June 2018

On 24 June 2018, the BBC's 'Countryfile' programme reported on Britain's rivers, saying that today, only 20% of them are classified as 'healthy' - adding that the finger of blame is often pointed at agricultural run-off, but that's far from being the only culprit.  The reporter said:

"These outlets are Combined Sewer Overflows or CSO's for short. They're emergency storm drains designed to relieve the pressure on our overloaded water system in times of extreme rainfall.

CSO's in coastal areas like these have been campaigned against for years, but we've discovered that there are many thousands hidden along our rivers.

Without them, sewage could back up and flood our homes and gardens.

They're only supposed to operate as a last resort, but we've discovered that some are operating throughout the year, dumping human sewage - which is a threat to our health, our environment, and our wildlife."

He went on to show the River Windrush flowing from the Cotswolds through Oxfordshire, before joining the Thames. Its banks - in Swinbrook - just downriver from Bourton-on-the-Water - are a popular spot for walkers, adding that local people has noticed a marked decline in the river's appearance and water quality.

One walker described it as a grey scar with no life in it.

Another said they thought it was pollution from the sewage works upstream at Bourton-on-the-Water.

One chap who was interviewed said:

"You don't need to be a scientist to know that putting untreated sewage and badly treated sewage into a river is going to harm it, and a small river like this can't take it."

One of the walkers had found the Combined Sewer Overflow and the BBC reporter was taken to see it. He described seeing toilet paper, a sanitary towel and other waste.

The Countryfile Reporter said the Combined Sewer Overflow was operated by Thames Water and relieves pressure on its treatment plant at Little Rissington, adding that when it rains heavily, the company is legally permitted to release sewage to stop it backing up.  He said

"But this year, this CSO has been releasing sewage, on average, nearly twice a week and [names of two walkers] have recorded evidence of the resulting pollution"

He went on to say that this was far from the only CSO dumping sewage into rivers adding

"Our research has found there are nearly 25,000 of these overflows being used by UK water companies to relieve pressure on the system. It's not ideal, but it is legal for untreated sewage to be pumped through here in the case of an emergency. Yet we found evidence that these overflows are not just being used as a last resort.

We've discovered that in England and Wales, where the sewage companies say they rely on more than 15,500 CSO's, there were some 70,000 recorded spills of untreated waste in just 12 months..."

Countryfile had contacted Thames Water who had said:

"There is the potential for dilute waste water to impact water quality, but there are also many other factors outside of our control that affect water quality."

Countryfile's research also found:

"We've discovered that thousands of these overflows go completely unmonitored. No-one knows how often they operate, or how much untreated sewage they dump into our rivers. That's despite an ultimatum issued by the Westminster Government five years ago"

The reporter quoted from a 2013 letter from the then Environment Minister to the water and sewerage companies clearly saying ...

' they should introduce monitoring for the vast majority of their CSO's by 2020'

What the Countryside programme didn't say was that in November 2102, the European Court of Justice had upheld the EU Commission’s infringement action against the UK (on 18 October 2012 - Commission v UK Case C-301/10) for breaching the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive which related to discharges from combined sewage overflow systems.

The arguments rehearsed in this judgement are fascinating.

They were not about the factual circumstances of sewage discharges, but rather, they were about the interpretation of terms within the legislation for which there was no precise definition.

Chiefly, these arguments were about the UK arguing about a footnote in the legislation that says

‘Given that it is not possible in practice to construct collecting systems and treatment plants in a way such that all waste water can be treated during situations such as unusually heavy rainfall, Member States shall decide on measures to limit pollution from storm water overflows. Such measures could be based on dilution rates or capacity in relation to dry weather flow, or could specify a certain acceptable number of overflows per year’.

And the argument (that the UK lost ) in this matter was chiefly whether the words 'such as unusually heavy rainfall' indicated that there could be other circumstances in which CSO discharges could take place.

The UK argued that the discharges they had been held to account over were not wrong, because they were not expressly forbidden in the wording of the legislation and there was enough scope in the words "such as" to allow other reasons to justify what the UK had failed to achieve.

Those of a more CSO-anorky disposition might like to see the whole of the Judgement and can follow this link to download a copy of it.

We suspect that judgement might well have been what prompted that 2013 letter from the UK Minister to the water and sewerage companies, and readers can follow this link to download a copy of that as well.

It contains the immortal words...

"However I would agree with many customers and communities that a water company understanding where its CSO assets are and how they are performing is a basic element of sound sewerage management."

And says

"For all the reasons outlined above I believe that water companies need to introduce monitoring for the vast majority of their CSOs by 2020."

Yet as we will show, it's now 'by 2020' and the Deputy Director of Water Quality at the Environment Agency told Channel 4 news last week that only around half of the CSOs had had monitoring equipment installed.


However, having digressed (again) we return to the BBC Countryfile reporter who went on to explain.....

"Monitoring means getting water companies to declare how often a CSO overflows, and for how long.

Back in 2013, only 1,500 CSO's were monitored, but what about today?

Using requests under the Environmental Information Regulations - which water companies have to answer - we've discovered that only around 9,000 of the 25,000 CSO's across the UK are actually monitored.

That means the water companies don't know what's happening at nearly two thirds of sewer outlets. And in Northern Ireland there's no monitoring in place at all."

The report ended by saying that the CSO on the River Windrush had now been fitted with monitoring, and the reporter said of Thames Water

"We'd love to show you the network-wide improvement work they are doing, but they weren't available for filming.

The reporter went on to say that in the North West, there are 2,000 CSO's operated by United Utilities, but more than 700 are still not monitored and he asked United Utilities why it was taking so long to hit their target for monitoring the vast majority of them.

The man from UU said that installation of the spill monitors was quite large undertaking, and they were installing 2,000 over their current five year investment cycle, and they were on track to deliver them by 2020.

The report concluded by saying that whilst campaigners will want real-time monitoring and recording of monitoring, the Environment Agency said only about 80% of them would be monitored, and that won't be until 2025, which, of course is five years after the Government deadline.

We thought this was a good and balanced report by Countryfile.

We also thought it was another justification for us calling them the 'Useless Environment Agency'

 Counterbalance Reports - May 2012 to Dec 2015 and Feb 2019

Whilst not claiming a readership on the scale of the BBC, we do know the 450 who are signed up to be notified of new articles as they are published, and the average of 5,000 or so counterbalance page-reads that take place each month do impact on local readers. So we're including ourselves here as contributing to the building of pressure for change.

We first reported the matter of sewage on our local beaches back in 'Sewage Sea Shore' in 2012, and the start of our report 'Don't Go Into the Water' of Feb 2015 listed and linked to each of the 7 earlier articles we had published

Then, in The Great Bathing Waters Con, of 2015, we broke news of the fiddling of test results by discounting whole years of samples taken, and disregarding the worst samples taken in the years that had been counted. This gave some beaches and their bathing waters classification results that were pure fantasy.

We revisited - and partially updated - the Bathing Waters topic locally in 2019 when we published 'Bathing Waters Update'

That report had been prompted by a presentation to Fylde's Environment Health and Housing Committee on 8th January last year where a chap from United Utilities gave a PowerPoint presentation which we reported in some detail in our article, and readers with a special interest might like to refresh their memory about what we said at the time.

We're not going to repeat here what was said there, but we will make a few quick points if we may.

We're detecting an unwillingness from either United Utilities or the Environment Agency to treat this matter seriously enough to bring about the change that we believe is needed.

They don't seem to have their sights set on solving the problem at all. The highest aspiration they seem to have is doing the minimum necessary to sidestep being prosecuted for the pollution they are causing (UU) or allowing (EA), whilst at the same time, sowing mis-information in an attempt to minimise their failures.

There seems to be a view that they've done quite a lot, and an acceptance that's about as much as they feel they are willing to spend, even if it hasn't solved the problems of Combined Sewer Overflows, so we'll all just have to accept the status quo, and it's all OK really, because they're within the regulatory regime set by the Environment Agency.

And the (Useless) Environment Agency tacitly accepts that what United Utilities are doing is acceptable.

Now, where did we hear that sort of explanation before??

Was it about the sort of cladding that can be used on tower blocks?

Or was it the prelude to the Great MP's expenses scandal, where many MP's thought that as long as they were working within the rules that had been set, then everything was OK.

The Great British Public knew otherwise of course, and made its views known to MPs very clearly.

If the Great British Public understood how they were being conned on this matter of Combined Sewer Overflows which pollute our rivers and end up giving the North West some of, if not the, worst Bathing Water Results in the country when the real sampled figures are used, they would be equally angry.

But just as - in the periods before each of these seismic events - people have been lulled into believing that the water companies and the Environment Agency are large scale professional businesses and bodies doing what is necessary.

They are not.

But worse than that, there is a deliberate and expensive ( £700,000 since 2012) professional spin-doctor driven campaign of half truth and misinformation being used as smoke and mirrors to distract our consideration of the matter and disguise the real situation.

  • Oh, its the seagull poo as they fly over the bathing waters.
  • Oh, its the starlings roosting under the piers at night.
  • Oh it's the dogs taken onto the beach.
  • Oh it's all because of cows pooing in the fields near the rivers.
  • Oh it's the sheep pooing on Hesketh Marsh (as if both they and the cows have not been doing this for hundreds of years).
  • And now, everyone's doing marvellous beach cleaning all along the coast that we can publicise to show what a good job we are all doing together (as though people can pick up the bacteria with litter-pickers)
  • And it's nothing to do with Combined Sewer Overflow outlets into the Liggard Brook (and elsewhere) which, when blocked for a short time caused a sewage geyser and lake that covered half of Park View Road Playing Fields and had to be sucked up and tankered away for days and days.
  • And it's nothing to do with the 'mushroom' that sits just off Fairhaven Lake and is connected by an underground pipe to Fairhaven Sewage Pumping Station that gets overwhelmed with sewage like the enormous storage tank at Park View Road.

Pull the other one.

We managed to get hold of a schematic map of sewer flows in Lytham and St Annes and although they're not marked as such, we think the alphanumerics in black and outlined in red are the approximate locations of some local combined sewer overflow outfalls (or at least the ones that are known about). Readers can download it as a pdf file by clicking the graphic below.

Schematic Map of Sewer Flows LSA

We think that's the case because the legend uses yellow squares to mark the positions of the 'Network Storage Tanks' and the 'Fairhaven Sea Outfall' is the only purple line on the whole map.

That purple line runs from the Fairhaven Pumping Station to a black dot on the beach (more or less in the position of what we call 'the Mushroom') - bearing the letters FYL0042 with a red outline. So if that colour scheme is consistent, then all the black letters with red outlines are probably Combined Sewer Outfalls.

Fairhaven Sewage Plant and its Mushroom

We've been told the mushroom is no longer used to discharge untreated sewage into the sea.

'The Mushroom' Combined Sewer Overflow at FairhavenBut we simply don't believe what we have been told.

This picture is a close up of 'the mushroom' just off the coast of Fairhaven.

It has a grill through which overflows from the Fairhaven facility can be discharged directly into the sea

If you try to walk out towards it (we did a year or so ago, although we'd actually strongly advise not doing it), you find localised thick sludge /mud all around it and it is very slippery.

We counted at least 9 apparent Combined Sewer Outfalls on the schematic map above, and whilst most will be into drainage dykes and ditches, all of them seem to end up flowing into the river Ribble and thus onto our bathing waters

And as Cllr Roger Lloyd has said in more than one meeting, the test results that are published do show unsatisfactory results that have been discounted to make the results better

United Utilities and the Environment agency say the problems are beyond their control because of 'stormwater' (there is no such word) in periods of heavy rain (and they can't be blamed for heavy rain)

Well, apart from the fact that they CAN be blamed for not having the capacity to cope with it, Cllr Lloyd knows, and we all know, that THE BATHING WATER TESTS ARE ONLY TAKEN BETWEEN MAY AND SEPTEMBER.

Outside that time, when the rain is even more frequent and heavier, there are undoubtedly many more Combined Sewer Overflow spills into rivers and the sea when no one is taking samples to be tested.

They only do tests 'in the bathing season.'

Like we said, they aren't trying to fix the problem of sewage entering or rivers and the sea, they're trying to avoid being prosecuted for it between May and September.

Last week, the Gazette carried a feelgood article headed 'What a Breath of Fresh Air' saying that Blackpool had the lowest number of deaths from air pollution in the country. It was good news. It said Blackpool has:

'The smallest proportion of fatalities linked to deadly toxins from poor air quality in England and the fourth smallest in the UK.

And it was probably correct given the strong winds we get to blow the traffic fumes away from the urban area.

The tests has measured pollution using what are called PM2.5 emissions. These are the microscopic particulates resulting from burning - notably combustion engines, and especially diesel engines.

It WAS good news.

But what they didn't test for in the air quality, was the presence of the sort of bacteria found in sea-water.

The sort that gets whipped up and blown into town as the seaspray from storms that have already overwhelmed the sewage system and spilled sewage out into rivers and the sea, and can be seen all along the cost creating plumes of foam and spray from waters that will undoubtedly contain bacteria attributable to human waste in them.

But of course, the air tests were only for particulates, and the water tests are not taken between September and May.

Another thing that shows the inadequate mindset of the water company and the Useless Environment Agency is that they're solving some of the problems by building longer sewer outfalls a mile or more out to sea where no-one will notice.

They're not trying to solve the sewage problem, only to hide it from view.

As the nice man from United Utilities told Fylde Council in his presentation:

"So where we do discharge, a number of points we have outfall pipes, some short, some quite long and hefty - you'll see some pictures and a video. Where, where we do have to discharge to avoid flooding of property and businesses, we send it via an outfall pipe. "

We simply should not be discharging untreated sewage effluent into any of our rivers or the sea.

Not ever.

There needs to be extra or bigger storage tanks, or better still, enough sewage treatment works to eliminate the need for Combined Sewer Overflows at all.

One of the Councillors in Fylde's meeting asked why they didn't build more storage tanks, and in response, the United Utilities representative said:

"If you've got ten storage tanks in a network, and the rain stops, and they're all full, it takes a number of days for those contents to be returned.

If you have another storm before all those tanks have emptied, you haven't got that ten tanks of storage, you've only got maybe three, cos seven are still full and haven't emptied yet"

As though it was a insoluble problem.

It isn't.

It's not at all complicated.

If the problem is capacity, you need more capacity.

But the real answer is more Sewage Treatment Works of course.

 The World Wide Fund for Nature Report - Aug 2019

Last summer, the World Wide Fund for Nature said rivers were used as open sewers, and a target to see 75% of rivers to be healthy by 2027 was "very unlikely" to be met in England,.

Their comment flowed from an Environment Agency prediction that 75% of rivers in England and along the Scottish and Welsh borders will meet EU expectations by 2027, compared with just 14% in 2019.

The BBC reported that the Environment Agency had said it would review the target based on "what can realistically be achieved".

You just know where that is going don't you Dear Reader?

Meanwhile, Dr Andrew Singer, a senior scientist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said:

"There is no river in the UK that is safe to be swimming in.

We have so many sewage works that are on a river that even if you treated it perfectly, you would still have enough pathogens coming out of a well-operated sewage works that you wouldn't want to swim in the river."

"...there needed to be "zero tolerance" of sewage pollution and a programme of "habitat restoration" to make rivers fit for different types of wildlife again."

The report went on to say the European Union had asked nations to grade their rivers between poor, moderate, good and high.

Governments should aim for rivers to be "good" - meaning relatively unaffected by human activity.

Under the Water Framework Directive the EU set a target for all rivers to be "good" by 2027 - but exceptions were allowed if the cost of doing so would be too high.

The UK government decided we would aim for 75% of rivers to be in good health 'as soon as is practicable', in its 25-year environment plan.

The Environment Agency predicts that in 2021 just 19% of rivers will be "good", rising to almost 75% by 2027.

The WWF said this was "very unlikely" to be achieved without tougher regulation.

We absolutely agree.

 The Times Wades In - Aug 2019

In August last year, The Times undertook a major investigation into the state of our rivers and launched a strong attack on the Environment Agency and water companies.

It's Saturday edition front page was entirely given over to a warning that no river in England is safe for bathing, together with another two pages of detailed analysis and comment.

A separate leading editorial was headlined:

'The Environment Agency needs to get tougher with water companies whose woeful record on pollution means no English river can be certified safe for swimming.'

It was the strongest criticism of the water industry we had seen in the national media, and we will reproduce some key points from it.

The Times said its own investigation of 55 million water quality tests by the Environment Agency over 18 years showed that rivers were not being tested enough by the Environment Agency to be considered safe for swimming.

It said 86% were below the standards set under the EU Water Framework Directive.

And its leader article said

"... much of the blame for this miserable record lies with the water companies"

before it went on to say that the broader problem is that the Environment Agency is

"simply failing to do its job."

The Times also said its evidence suggests the regulator 'has taken its eye off the ball' and that the water companies 'have been allowed to mark their own homework' by carrying out some of the tests themselves.

In what for us was one of the most shocking revelations, the report went on to show that the number of water quality tests taken by the Environment Agency for all pollutants, including toxic heavy metals, bacteria, pesticides and other chemicals, has fallen from nearly 5 million in 2000 to just 1.3 million in 2018.

Reduction in Environment Agency testing for pollution

Please click the graphic to enlarge

 The text accompanying this graphic in the Times Article said:

"The number of water quality tests taken by the agency for all pollutants fell to 1.3 million last year from nearly five million in 2000. The agency says that monitoring has become 'more targeted, risk-based and efficient', peaking in 2013 after 'extensive water quality investigations required for the first cycle of the [EU] water framework directive'.

Experts say, however, that monitoring is deteriorating as budgets and staffing levels fall."

In terms of matters specifically relating to sewage, the report said it had 'also found evidence of raw sewage being dumped in rivers' via 16,000 emergency outflow sites in England where the water companies are legally allowed to spill untreated sewage into rivers in exceptional storm conditions.

The article also refers to the record £126 million punishment imposed by Ofwat (Note this is not the Environment Agency) last month on Southern Water for what it called ' 'deliberate misreporting' of data and ''dumping an unknown amount of sewage into rivers, streams and on beaches over seven years.'

But it got even worse. The Times Article was very critical of something it referred to as the Environment Agency’s ''enforcement undertakings'

This appears to be a procedure in which the Water Companies are allowed to repair environmental damage, accept liability, and make a charitable contribution rather face a prosecution.


If that is really taking place as the Times alleges, it is wrong on so many levels.

What it confirms for us is that the Useless Environment Agency is no longer fit for purpose. It needs to be disbanded and reformed into separate entities, having has the jolt of its life.

It needs to be instructed to focus on the practical aspects of what the people who pay the taxes to fund the organisation want it to do.

And that includes STOPPING the pollution of the rivers by Combined Sewer Overflows, STOPPING the flooding of people's homes through inadequate river and catchment management and so on.

In what we thought was a brilliant reference, the Times quoted Kerry McCarthy MP (a member of two House of Commons select Committees on the Environment) saying the water companies were....

"Treating fines as the cost of doing business, rather than seeing them as a serious deterrent."

That's a wonderfully crystal clear expression of the sentiment we've been trying to christen as we referred to it throughout this article.

Stung by the criticism from the Times, the Chairman of the Environment Agency issued a public rebuttal claiming that the Times' coverage of the state of England’s rivers was wrong on most counts except one.

She sounds to us more like an evasive politician that a public servant, and began with an attempted justification that

"Water quality in our rivers is now better than at any time since the start of the Industrial Revolution."

Adding that:

"All over the country, salmon and otter have returned to waters that until recently were biologically dead. That has happened because of the work of the Environment Agency, alongside that of the water companies, environmental non-governmental organisations and local communities."

Come and look at the Liggard Brook here in Lytham, lady.

She also said the Bathing waters were OK adding

".... last year 388 of them (97.9%) passed the minimum standards.

In 1995 over half would have failed those standards. The Environment Agency has led these improvements. "

She's partly right (as we showed in 2015) because without fiddling the test results, several of the Fylde's beaches would have failed, and we suspect some would fail now if they were properly tested with no discounting of the samples that will cause them to fail.

If the test results were not still being 'retrospectively adjusted' even today we think there would be failures on the Fylde Coast. It's something we hope to research ourselves shortly.

In another part of her rebuttal she says

"Water companies are not allowed to 'mark their own homework'. While they do carry out some tests for the Environment Agency (which is standard practice for most regulated industries here and elsewhere), we do our own testing, and we monitor and regularly inspect their facilities."

We simply cannot agree with her.

Few will agree that - what should be the public's watchdog - accepts that the potential polluter should test themselves, whether that's a water company like the heavily Ofwat punished Southern Water, Ofcom-fined Seven Water who had deliberately misreported its data and dumped an unknown amount of sewage into rivers, streams and on beaches over seven years, or whether it's the owners of a local fracking site.

This lady clearly just doesn't get it.

We hope she soon understands the mood in the country has changed, and she's now on the wrong side of it.

We also think The Times did a magnificent job in exposing the disgraceful situation she and her organisation oversee.

 Channel 4 Investigation - Jan 2020

Coming right up to date, on 26 January 2020, Channel 4 did their own investigation into Combined Sewer Overflows.

Jon Snow introduced the item saying

"Untreated sewage is being released into rivers across England and Wales perfectly legally, and campaigners are calling it 'A Dirty Little Secret'.

This programme has now obtained exclusive figures showing how often and for how long it is happening.

Water companies are allowed to release a mixture of rainwater and sewage through special overflow pipes during spells of heavy rain, but we've discovered that during 2018, there were one hundred and forty thousand spills, lasting a total of 900,000 hours"

Their reporter Clare Fallon reported from the River Wharfe at Ilkley and said that in the summer, when the temperatures are warm, hundreds of people come to Ilkley to swim and to paddle in the river, and partly because of that, the river has become an illustration of a bigger issue - because campaigners in the area are lobbying for the amount of sewage that is released into the river to be dramatically reduced if not stopped.

She said 'Water UK' - which represents the water companies insisted that this is done within strict rules. it's regulated and permitted.

But campaigners who are worried about the extent to which this is happening say the rules need to change.

As we have said before, this is a direct parallel with the rules that allowed MP's to claim expenses for Duck Houses which were also said to be permitted under the rules at that time.

She said Channel 4 News has obtained data that hadn't been made public until now.

The figures show - for the first time - how often untreated sewage is released into our rivers.

In some places, its hundreds of times a year, and for thousands of hours.

Clare Fallon sitting above a Combined Sewer Outfall

Clare Fallon sitting above a Combined Sewer Overflow

She interviewed Mark Barrow, an underwater cameraman who said he had spent 'half his life' in the river and had personally known the time when there were freshwater mussel beds which are now gone.

Clare interviewed him, saying he had learned in a fairly unpleasant way, what was being released into the river Wharfe in West Yorkshire. He said

"The river was low, it was clear, and then I hit this wall of what I assumed was silt, and it wasn't 'til I surfaced that I realised this CSO was discharging"

"So you get out of the water and you literally have...."

"Yes, everything. Everything you can imagine was stuck to me"

Earlier he had said:

"By the time I got out, I was draped in wipes, sanitary towels, and unmentionables"

She went on to say that Channel 4 News had obtained data for about one third of the CSO's on rivers in England and Wales, saying

"In all, they discharged into rivers more than 140,000 times in the most recent year the data covers.

United Utilities, Severn Trent and Anglian Water have sewer overflows that were overflowing for more 6,000 hours in 2018.

Or, put another way, they released a rainwater and sewage mix for nine months of the year."

Figures on the screen showed CSO discharges were

  • Severn Trent 6,620 hours
  • United Utilities 6,128 hours
  • Anglian Water 6,126 hours

She went on to say more storms were making things worse, and there was a capacity problem because since the sewage system was built, the number of people and houses has kept on going up.

She interviewed Dr Paul Caine of Leeds University, a water quality expert, who said he would not even let his dog go into a river where a CSO was discharging, and the pathogens that were released were a potential health risk.

He also said

"But now populations are much bigger so we put a lot more into our sewers, we use a lot more water..."

adding that

"It's similar to a lot of environmental problems in that it's not an easy problem to deal with, you know, it's difficult technically, it's very expensive, and we just kind of brush it under the carpet a bit, until it becomes such a problem that we do need to do something about it."

She also interviewed a chap from Yorkshire Water who was the Director of Wastewater Delivery. He told her that major building projects would mean higher water bills, so they're trying to find other fixes, saying

"There are two things, there's complying with the law, and a change in expectations.

I think we would ideally like to see surface water out of combined systems, you know, what are the environmental techniques that we could do that means that we can avoid big scale disruption to our customers"

Asked if he would swim in a river that had a Combined Sewer Overflow in it, he said:

"Well, I have swam in the river Wharfe.... I've paddled actually... with my children, but I'm not..."

An incredulous Clare Fallon interrupted him saying "You let your children go in it?"

"I've paddled in the river Wharfe with my kids"

Speaking to a local lady who was part if the 'Ilkley Clean River Campaign' who was campaigning to have the river classified as a 'bathing water' because with that status would come tighter water quality rules.

Back in the TV studio Jon Snow interviewed Helen Wakenham, Deputy Director of Water Quality at the Environment Agency, and asked her whether, given the conditions building up at some of these outlets, was there a high level of anxiety at the Agency about the overall state of the sewage overflows. She said

"I wouldn't say anxiety, we're certainly doing a lot more work on Combined Sewer Overflows than we did.

Prior to about 2015, we really reacted to reports from the public that there was a problem with combined sewer overflows. Since then, with the water industry, there's been huge investment in putting monitoring systems onto, well, more than half of our Combined Sewer Overflows.

And what that's telling us is which ones are a problem and which aren't, so they're designed to operate only in very wet weather, to stop sewage from backing up into people's homes. What the monitoring's enabling us to do is to see those ones which are operating in dry weather. Once we know, and we've got the evidence, we can start to work on those with the water companies, we can investigate, and we can make sure the companies invest to put them right.

So it's new, it's more pro-active. What's actually happening is not that the problem is getting worse, but that we understand more about it, and that's enabling us to do something about it."

Jon Snow asked whether the Wharfe river was a particularly bad example or was it typical of what's going on. He said

"I mean, we're talking about a terrible stench, awful back-up of stuff at the actual overflow, and a jamming up with appalling things like sanitary products, condoms, wet-wipes and all the rest of it, you know the problem."

We watched as a brief smile flickered across the face of this lady as she heard what he said.

To us this seemed to belie a ''here we go again' mentality as she replied...

"And of course that absolutely shouldn't happen, and if there's a particular problem with a particular combined sewer overflow, we'll always investigate that, but I think what you're describing in terms of what you can see is a real indicator of why the problem isn't about the water industry, it's about individual behaviours.

If the sewer is full of wet wipes and fat, you know, the fatbergs that we've seen so much about in the press, there isn't room for the water, and so if that's happening, sewers are filling up and overflowing more rapidly, so there is something that individuals can do to stop that from happening, which is not to use the toilet as a bin."

Asked about the safety of rivers to swim in, the lady replied

"We don't manage most of our rivers for swimming. We manage our rivers for amenity and for wildlife. Where we make the Bathing Water designation - and there's more than 400 of them in England, we work very hard to make sure that they meet the standard.

So if we're going to have to have all our rivers at that standard, and I think it's certainly something that we should consider and something that we should pursue, it will take partnership between the water industry and communities to get it right.

But having said it's a challenge, I think there's absolutely no reason why we shouldn't pursue it."

We disagree with a lot of what this lady said.

The Judgement against the UK was in 2012 and it's now 2020. That's eight years ago and the best she can say is they still don't know how much and how often discharges are taking place on almost half the sewers that exist.

China just built and opened a new 1,000-bed hospital in less than two weeks from scratch, and we can't even manage to put a flowmeter on the ends of sewers we claim to have known about in 8 years.

So - as she admitted - the body responsible for enforcing the UK's environmental standards still - after 8 years- don't know which sewers are a problem and which are not.

And her statement that - it was not that the problem is getting worse, it is simply that we understand more about it - was, frankly, a disgrace. To us it says she is, like so many of the people working for the Useless Environment Agency, on the wrong side of this problem.

Like her Chairman, she simply doesn't get it.

As with so many 'professionals' these days, she exhibited no personal shame during the interview for allowing the present situation to exist, she even went on to blame the public for their 'individual behaviours' in an attempt to distract attention from her own organisation's failings.

And her idea of 'fatbergs' being part of the cause of the problem is ridiculous and just added another branch to the EA's 'don't blame us' mentality.

Fatbergs (if they exist in rural Yorkshire) would have either blocked or reduced the flow of sewage in the pipes in the first place.

So they would have REDUCED the flow of sewage leading to LESS chance of the pipes discharging from overflows!

Words fail.


Because of the UK Government's unwillingness and failure to meet its international obligations on discharges from Combined Sewer Overflows, it was obliged to tell the water companies they had to have monitoring equipment installed on the 'vast majority of their CSOs by 2020.'

At best, in the seven years since, they have only done this on about half of them.

Then, because of a case brought by angling organisation 'Fish Legal' the Water Companies were forced to disclose the results of that monitoring following a judgement under the Environmental Information regulations.

The disgrace that this revealed is - in our view - equal in scale and type to the MPs expenses scandal, but the Useless Environment Agency sees itself as a partner to those it is supposed to be regulating and has forgotten that it's responsibility is to the taxpaying public.

Now more than ever, we are convinced the Environment Agency is not fit for purpose and needs to be fragmented into smaller units where each can have a more clear focus - for example on water their undoubted focus should be on relentless improvement in sea and river water quality, keeping the drains and rivers flowing at optimal capacity, the *prevention* of flooding and so on.

Their role should not be to work in 'partnership' with anyone except the public they serve. Their role should be to enforce standards, not the use of 'Environmental Permitting Regulations' that grant future absolution from prosecution for pollution - just as the sale of 'Indulgences' in the middle ages pre-granted absolution from sins yet to be committed.

But until public pressure reaches the same level as the MP's Expenses Scandal - where those making expenses claims 'within the rules' thought all was well - the present day Water Companies and the Environment Agency probably won't understand that working 'within the rules' when those rules themselves are unacceptable, is not acceptable.

So pressure for change is building, but unless the Environment Agency changes to match public opinion we don't expect much to happen anytime soon.

We think their focus will shift to trying to reduce the amount of water going into the drains in the first place.

They will aim to stop or reduce it at source by trying to change public behaviour.

There is already talk of introducing water storage facilities on people's property - (more water butts and underground storage tanks when driveways and gardens have hard surfaces laid) - to cut down the water leaving people's property and going into the drainage system.

There will also be pressure to reduce our consumption of water, and more measures to require recycling of household water.

Although we can see that such measures might be enforceable on work (like paving driveways and so on) where planning permission is needed, we can't see that idea working retrospectively.

Blackpool has already reported its abandonment of the plan for retrospective fitting of Sustainable Drainage Systems to existing property.

This was one of the measures proposed by the 'Fylde Peninsula Water Management Partnership' of which Blackpool, Fylde and others are members was to:

"Create 50 hectares of retrofitted sustainable drainage."

In effect this meant finding land and buildings that are connected to the mains sewer, and which have sufficient space around them to install either abnormally large diameter sewer pipes, or underground storage tanks that would intercept water already flowing from hard surfaces like roofs, concrete yards and other hard areas, and to store that water temporarily before releasing it through a restricted size outlet into the sewers - to slow down the rate of flow.

This already happens on new developments and is why you now often see housing areas with open water that increases and decreases in depth depending on rainfall. It's called a 'Sustainable Drainage System.'

The aim of retro-fitting was the same for existing property - to reduce the speed at which water from hard surfaces reaches the drains, and thus to reduce the incidence of combined sewers overflowing.

Great in theory, but it was never going to work - as Blackpool reported in 2018 when they said this aim of retrofitting had been deleted from the Action Plan

What we see here are pretty useless workarounds still being dreamed up.

They can contribute going forward in the future, but the damage is already done and not able to be reversed by such measures.

When it rains into an already full water-butt or underground tank, it simply continues on to the drainage network.

We can't knock down the extra houses that have been built, and we can't rebuild the entire sewer network.

So as far as we can see, the only reliable solution is a whole series of new sewage treatment plants to take flows that will need to be diverted from points on the existing sewer networks so that more of our existing sewage is treated before it is discharged, thus reducing the frequency of overflows from the Combined sewers.

If not, the 'fudge of sludge' is likely to continue.

It might be that we have to change our perception and think about sewage treatment plants as we think about power stations - having some that normally run at minimal capacity in order to be able to come onstream to cope with times of peak demand.

We also think the Government themselves should be responsible for the construction of new sewage treatment works.

They could be provided as part of the great infrastructure spending boom we have been encouraged to expect, especially in the North.

Dated:  7 February 2020


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