The High Court has given permission for a hearing against the Government’s Storm Overflows Discharges Reduction Plan, which allows water companies to continue dumping sewage into rivers and coastal waters for another three decades. Good Law Project is supporting the legal action, being brought by the Marine Conservation Society, Richard Haward’s Oysters, and Hugo Tagholm, a surfer and activist.
The hearing at the High Court will challenge the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey, over her department’s plan.
The Storm Overflows Discharges Reduction Plan was published in August last year and 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 claimants want the Government to improve its plan and bring forward the deadlines for water companies to act and include stronger protections for coastal waters across the country.
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.
The latest Environment Agency data shows that storm overflows are being used with alarming regularity. In 2021, storm overflows discharged untreated sewage 372,533 times over a period of 2.7 million hours.
The date for the hearing at the High Court has yet to be decided.
Jo Maugham, Director of Good Law Project, 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."
Sandy Luk, Chief Executive of Marine Conservation Society, 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 and 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”.
Surfer and activist, Hugo Tagholm, 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.”