Water companies in the UK are set to face the toughest targets on pollution from sewage spills under a new plan announced by the Government.

Ministers appear to have bowed to pressure amid growing calls to clamp down on those contributing to water pollution.

It comes after dozens of pollution warnings were issued for beaches and swimming spots in England and Wales last week following heavy rain that overwhelmed the sewage system.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it is launching what it calls the “largest infrastructure programme in water company history to crack down on sewage spills and end pollution.”

It will be £56 billion capital investment over 25 years.

Under the proposals, water companies will have to achieve targets, so discharges only happen when there is unusually heavy rain and when there is no immediate adverse impact to the local environment.

By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into, or near, every designated bathing water site; and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high priority nature sites such as sites of special scientific interest.

By 2050, this will apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by targets, regardless of location.

Cabinet Meeting
George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (James Manning/PA)

The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, said: “This is the first Government to take action to end the environmental damage caused by sewage spills.

“We will require water companies to protect everyone who uses our water for recreation, and ensure storm overflows pose no threat to the environment.

“Water companies will need to invest to stop unacceptable sewage spills so our rivers and coastlines can have greater protection than ever before.”

The Government will review the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction in 2027 to consider where it can go further, taking account of innovation and efficiencies, and how the programme is impacting water bills.

The plan also sets out that water companies will be required to publish discharge information in near real time, as well as committing to tackling the root causes of the issue by taking steps to improve surface water drainage.

Under the proposals, there will also be no changes to bills until 2025, with the Government ruling out options which could add up to £817 a year to average household water bills.

The Government said it will continue to monitor water affordability, take further action if needed, and will consult on a new water affordability scheme to help less well-off households.

Coastline sewage pollution
Members of the public and protesters from Hastings and St Leonards Clean Water Action, protest against raw sewage release incidents on the beach in St Leonards, Sussex (Gareth Fuller/PA)

While the Conservative chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Philip Dunne welcomed the proposals, Labour accused the Government of “writing fiction”.

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said: “Instead of governing, it’s clear that the Conservatives have taken up writing fiction, as this document is neither a plan, nor does it eliminate sewage dumping into our natural environment. Under the Government’s weak improvement ‘target’, based on last year’s data, we’d face another 4.8 million sewage spill events in our country between now and 2035.

“Last year, Tory MPs had the opportunity to vote meaningful action into law, but blocked measures that would have progressively eliminated the discharge of raw sewage in our natural environment.

“Britain deserves better than a zombie Tory government that is happy for our country to be treated as an open sewer. Labour will use the levers of power to hold reckless water bosses to account legally and financially, and toughen regulations to prevent them from gaming the system.”

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats branded the plan “a cruel joke” and claimed their analysis of the proposal shows that by 2030, there will still be 325,000 sewage dumps a year on Britain’s beaches, as well as in lakes, rivers and chalk streams.

Sewage monitors
Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ environment spokesman (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson Tim Farron said: “This Government plan is a licence to pump sewage onto our beaches and in our treasured rivers and lakes. By the time these flimsy targets come into effect, our beaches would have been pumped full of disgusting sewage, more otters will be poisoned, and our children will still be swimming in dangerous water.

“By 2030 there will still be 325,000 sewage dumps a year in our waterways.

“This is a cruel joke. The Government is going to hike water bills to pay for cleaning up the mess made by water companies. The same companies who awarded their executives multi-million pound bonuses this year and paid out over £1 billion to their shareholders. Whilst they roll in the cash, we swim in sewage. The whole thing stinks.”

Mr Dunne, a Conservative former minister, instead said it was “welcome news” to receive details of the sewage reduction plan.

He went on: “The headline £56bn of capital investment in water treatment over the next 25 years will more than double what has been spent annually since privatisation of the water sector.

“I hope this will spell an end to the poisoning of river ecosystems and the harm done to bathers and other river users. It is right to focus on fixing the worst polluted sites first, as well as areas of special nature conservation such as chalk streams.”

Mr Dunne added: “As cost-of-living pressures increase, I also welcome the news that this investment from water companies will come at a cost to bill payers of just £1 extra per month for the first five years. Ofwat must use its powers and influence to ensure that the Government’s strategic priorities are delivered by the sector through responsible re-investment of profits.”