top of page

An Inside Look #5: Plan for Water - Governments plan for delivering clean and plentiful water



Ministerial foreword


Water is what makes life possible on our planet. It is essential for human health and wellbeing, for wildlife, and for our economy – including the production of food. We are blessed by our range of rivers, lakes, wetlands and coastlines. We host migratory ducks, geese, and waders, as well as 85% of the world’s rare chalk streams.


Water is so precious. Both of us treasure it and it has a special place in hearts across the Defra ministerial team – from Somerset to Suffolk, Nottinghamshire to Cumbria. That is why we are proud to launch our new Plan for Water, which will catalyse and coordinate a step change in action across government, our economy, and the whole country to make our water clean and plentiful.


We use about 14 billion litres of water per day and will need 4 billion more by 2050. Thanks to our government acting to require monitoring of storm overflows, we have unveiled the serious problems we face on sewerage and created a plan to fix it requiring the largest investment ever by water companies. At the same time, we recognise that we are dealing with a Victorian-era sewage network that in length would wrap around the world two and a half times, while transformative projects like the Thames Tideway Tunnel take time to deliver.


We have legislated through the Environment Act 2021 for stronger powers for our regulators, for tackling pollution and for greater transparency with the public so we can hold water companies and polluters to account. We have set specific legally binding targets and set out how to reduce water pollution in our new Environmental Improvement Plan.


We are making progress. Much loved species, like seahorses and seals, are returning to our rivers and estuaries. Salmon have returned to the river Don for the first time in 200 years. Last year, over 72% of our bathing waters in England were classified as ‘excellent’, up from just 51% in 2010. Many of the micro and single-use plastics that wreak such havoc on our marine environment are now banned.

We know that people across the country want to see more progress in tackling pollution. We agree. That is why reducing the use of storm overflows is a top priority for the government, as well as a personal priority for both of us.


Our Plan for Water is designed to take us further and faster, based on taking a systematic, local, catchment-based approach, in a coordinated and collaborative way, using both nature-based solutions and investment in infrastructure involving communities, water companies, and businesses.

Streamlining and strengthening regulation with better integration of water management will drive delivery. To tackle pollution, we have massively stepped up our requirements for investment. Ofwat now has powers to link performance to payouts to shareholders and management of water companies. And if companies fail, our regulators will get more powers to impose much larger penalties for polluters without needing to go to court.


Those penalties will go straight into our new Water Restoration Fund, so we can support more projects that improve the environment – and keep the pressure off your bills. We have also brought forward £1.6 billion of extra infrastructure investment to help tackle these issues across the country, particularly on storm overflows from Cornwall to Cumbria.


We will also design new homes to be more efficient with our use of water. We will tackle every source of pollution from run-off from roads and fields, to banning harmful chemicals and unnecessary use of plastic, including a new ban on plastic-containing wet wipes. We will work with farmers to enjoy a plentiful supply of water for growing our food, while also ensuring wildlife is protected.

We are working from source to sea, backing the frontrunners who are leading the way as well as making sure everyone is bringing up their baseline and tackling pollution head on.


Our Plan for Water is a national endeavour. We can each take straightforward steps to be careful on how we use water – whether you turn off the tap when brushing your teeth, not flushing products containing plastic, or getting a smart meter installed in your home so you can save on your bills and spot leaks quickly.


We hope that this Plan will help us all think about how we can pull together to secure clean and plentiful water, for people, for businesses and for nature, now and for generations to come.


The Right Honourable Thérèse Coffey MP

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

and


Rebecca Pow MP

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State

(Minister for Environmental Quality and Resilience)


Executive summary

This Plan for Water will deliver clean and plentiful water – a healthy water environment, and a sustainable supply of water for people, businesses, and nature.


We have made huge progress on water. Our bathing waters continue to improve. Last year 93% were classified as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, up from 76% in 2010. Supply interruptions to customers have decreased five-fold and leakage has been cut by a third since privatisation. Pollution in our rivers has significantly reduced. There is now 80% less phosphorus and 85% less ammonia compared to 1990 when water companies were privatised. Cadmium and mercury in the water environment have also reduced.


In January 2023, we set out our goals and targets with the Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP23). We are now delivering this Plan for Water which brings together the significant steps we have already taken with new action. This plan will transform our management of the water system, deliver cleaner water for nature and people, and secure a plentiful water supply. The actions are for government and regulators to lead on, but everyone needs to be involved to deliver this, including:

  • water companies

  • businesses

  • regulators

  • the public

In this plan, we set out measures to transform and integrate our water system, address sources of pollution and boost our water supplies through more investment, tighter regulation, and more effective enforcement.


Transform management of the whole water system

The best way to manage supply and pollution pressures is by taking an integrated approach across a whole catchment. Key actions include:

  • delivering catchment action plans backed up with new funding to improve all water bodies in England

  • more funding for catchment groups and catchment-scale partnerships that coordinate action and investment where rivers need it most

Our catchment-based approach will be underpinned by improvements to how we manage our water system with a streamlined policy and legal framework and with smarter regulation to deliver clean and plentiful water. Key actions include:

  • better integrating water and flood planning, and targeting actions where they will deliver the greatest impact for water quality, flood management, and nature recovery

  • giving the Environment Agency the power to issue bigger penalties to water companies when they pollute

  • enabling Ofwat, through the new powers of the Environment Act 2021, to link water company dividend pay-outs to environmental performance

  • supporting Ofwat’s changes to ensure that shareholders, not customers, will pay for water company executive bonuses where these companies are unable to demonstrate their pay award decisions reflect performance expectations

Deliver a clean water environment for nature and people

A healthy water environment is essential to achieve our commitment to restore nature and halt the decline of species.

We have set new legally binding targets to significantly reduce pollution from farming, wastewater, and abandoned metal mines, and have initiated the largest ever environmental infrastructure investment from the water sector. We have also substantially increased monitoring of storm overflows from only 10% in 2015, to over 90% now.

We will take further action to address the multiple sources of pollution impacting our water bodies. Key actions include:

  • a new Water Restoration Fund to channel environmental fines and penalties into projects that improve the water environment, including removing redundant water modifications, for example, weirs, to restore natural processes

  • accelerating around £1.6 billion of new water company infrastructure delivery to start in the next 2 years – reducing the number of spills from storm overflows, nutrient pollution, and increasing water supply

  • commissioning water companies to provide the first 5000+ action plans on individual storm overflows

  • leveraging £1 million investment in partnership projects each year to improve chalk catchments, in addition to supporting the delivery of the National Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy

  • designing agricultural schemes so that farmland alongside rivers creates space for nature

  • making our farming laws clearer and more effective at improving the environment – subject to consultation

  • considering actions to reduce the impacts of the strategic road network on water quality as part of developing the next Road Investment Strategy 2025 to 2030

  • rolling out standardised sustainable drainage systems in new developments subject to final decisions on scope, threshold and process, following consultation in 2023

  • bringing forward measures to end the sale of wet wipes containing plastic – subject to consultation – and writing to the advertising authorities and producers about using the word ‘flushable’ in wet wipes

  • proposing new restrictions on the use of ‘forever’ chemicals, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which impact our rivers and seas

Secure a plentiful supply of water


Growing demand for water, and more extensive periods of drought due to climate change, are projected to create a supply-demand gap in the future if we do no cut waste, improve water efficiency, and invest in new water resource infrastructure.


We have unlocked almost £500 million of additional investment in new large-scale water infrastructure and are making water companies produce plans to meet water demands in a changing climate.

This plan further accelerates the delivery of new water supply sources, including from reservoirs, water recycling, and transfers. We will also reduce drought impacts on water-reliant businesses and help farmers access the supplies they need. Key actions include:

  • speeding up the delivery of water resources infrastructure and ensuring new projects like reservoirs deliver a net gain for biodiversity

  • supporting farmers to store more water on their land – launching the second round of the £10 million Water Management Grant to fund more on-farm reservoirs and better irrigation equipment and reducing planning barriers to small reservoirs

To meet the future demand for water and minimise the impact on bill payers, our Plan also includes measures to improve water efficiency. Key actions include:

  • setting ambitious targets for water companies to crack down on leakage, facing financial penalties if they don’t meet them

  • improving water efficiency in homes by developing minimum product standards for showers, taps, and toilets

Transforming the management of the whole water system



Our Plan will cover:

  1. Farming and our rural landscape.

  2. Reducing other pollutants.

  3. Reducing pollution from wastewater, urban areas and transport.

  4. Increasing water supply.

  5. Managing water demand.

  6. New funding.

  7. Restoring water habitats.

Introduction

The Plan for Water will deliver clean and plentiful water – a healthy water environment, and a sustainable supply of water for people, businesses and nature.

Our Plan is built around a catchment approach to managing the water system. We will use our regulatory powers and strategic policy approach to improve water quality and deliver a resilient water supply. While there has been progress in improving water quality, we recognise that standards and performance must keep improving to anticipate and prepare for further challenges ahead.


Challenges of managing the water system

Pollution, bigger towns and cities, and population growth are putting a strain on our water supplies and water environment. Climate change is making these pressures worse. We are facing longer and more frequent droughts which are increasing interruptions to our water supplies. Wetter winters and more frequent, heavier storms are leading to more flooding and more pollutants being washed off fields and urban areas.


We are becoming increasingly aware of how emerging pollutants, such as microplastics and chemicals, are impacting our water system. These pollutants result from our everyday activities, from driving and cleaning our clothes, to what we flush down toilets.

Improvements have become increasingly challenging and costly to deliver as we deal with the more complex problems. The natural environment takes time to recover, so there is a lag between our actions and benefits being seen.


Like many other industrialised countries, we have physically modified our water environment over hundreds of years. We have straightened rivers, built steep concrete banks, and constructed small dams. Many of these modifications provide essential benefits to the economy and society, including drinking water, flood protection, and navigation, and we do not want to remove them. These can be seen in places like Pulteney Weir in Bath, the River Thames along the Embankment, or our canal system across the country.


Figure 1: Top pressures impacting water bodies in England. Water bodies are commonly impacted by more than one pressure, so the totals do not add up to 100%.

%

Physical Modification

41

Pollution from agriculture and rural land

40

Pollution from wastewater

36

Non-native invasive species

23

Pollution from towns, cities and transport

18

Changes to natural flow and levels of water

15

Pollution from abandoned mines

3

Source data for figure 1 comes from an evidence report used in the 25 Year Environment Plan.


The state of the water environment

We assess the health of the water environment using ecological status, chemical status, and the condition of protected sites. The Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England and Wales) Regulations 2017 – ‘the Water Environment Regulations 2017’ comprise up to 126 elements to be assessed. The tests are applied to rivers, lakes, estuaries, and coastal waters up to one nautical mile from shore, across 4,658 surface water bodies and 271 groundwater bodies.

Assessments of the water environment include:

  • ecological status

  • chemical status

  • groundwater status

  • bathing, shellfish, and drinking water protected areas status

  • protected nature site condition

Ecological status is assigned using various water, habitat, and biological quality tests. Failure of any one test means that the whole water body fails to achieve good or high ecological status. Water bodies are classified as high, good, moderate, poor, or bad.


Good ecological status is based on the aim to get as close to natural condition as possible given reasonable anthropogenic use. Water bodies that are artificial or heavily modified are classified according to their ecological potential instead (see action 2.13).


Chemical status is assigned by assessing 52 different chemical elements, both individual and groups of chemicals. Water bodies are classified as good or failing. In 2019, England adopted advanced monitoring for persistent chemicals.


Groundwater status is assigned by assessing salinity, water levels, and presence of chemicals. Groundwater quantity (how much water there is) and quality (how clean the groundwater is) are used to determine groundwater status.


Bathing, shellfish, and drinking water protected areas status is assigned by assessing the presence of pollutants, such as nitrates and E-coli. Bathing waters are categorised as excellent, good, sufficient, or poor. Shellfish and drinking water areas are assessed as pass or fail.


Protected nature site condition is used to determine the health of protected nature sites, for example sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and habitat sites (special areas of conservation, special protection areas, and Ramsar sites). These sites receive classifications ranging from favourable to destroyed (Annex A). Favourable condition often has a higher threshold than good ecological status.

In England, 16% of surface water bodies currently achieve good ecological status, and 64% of water bodies are at moderate ecological status. The water bodies achieving good ecological status across England is shown in figure 2.


However, these headline figures do not show the complete picture of the state of our water environment. The ‘one-out-all-out’ approach requires each individual test – such as on fish or pH – to pass as ‘good’ for the water body to achieve overall good ecological status. Of the underlying tests for all 4,658 surface water bodies, 79% meet the requirement for good ecological status (Annex A).


One fifth of all water bodies are classified as moderate ecological status, rather than good ecological status, because of only one ‘moderate’ test result - all other tests achieved good. For example, in the upper part of the River Kennet, all ecological elements are at high or good, with the exception of the fish element, which is at moderate due to small dams blocking their passage along the river. The tests on individual elements under ecological status are also done at different frequencies – for example, fish surveys are done every 5 years.


England’s performance is comparable with equivalent Northern European countries’ compliance on water quality, bathing water, and the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. The European Environment Agency’s data shows that it will be challenging for most EU Member States to achieve good ecological status for all water bodies in the timeframe of the Water Framework Directive.




Figure 2: the percentage water bodies in each management catchment in England that achieved good ecological status in 2019


Figure 2 is a map showing the regional variation in the degree to which good ecological status is achieved by freshwater water bodies across catchment areas in England. Where catchments straddle the England-Wales border, the portion lying in Wales has been omitted. The catchment areas with the lowest percentages (between 0% to 5%) of river length achieving good ecological status are found in:

  • the south-east

  • the Greater London area

  • the East Midlands

  • Norfolk

  • parts of the north-west

  • parts of the West Midlands

  • Carlisle

The catchment areas with the highest percentages (between 25% and 100%) of river length achieving good ecological status are found in:

  • the south-west

  • Cumbria

  • Derbyshire

  • the catchments bordering Scotland

Source data for figure 2 comes from the England catchment data Explorer.

England adopted advanced monitoring for persistent chemicals in 2019. The new monitoring showed that no surface water bodies achieve good chemical status due to 3 persistent pollutants:

  • mercury

  • polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE – historically used as flame retardants)

  • perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS – a textile stain repellent and fire-fighting chemical)

These are known as ubiquitous, persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic pollutants. Although these substances are now banned or restricted in the UK, it is almost impossible to remove them from the water environment. They need to break down or disperse naturally, so can remain in the environment for decades. Without ubiquitous, persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic pollutants, 94% of England’s water bodies reach good chemical status. Other countries that undertake this advanced monitoring, such as Germany, Sweden, and Austria, have similar results.


Around two thirds of our protected nature sites, such as SSSIs, are dependent on the water environment. This includes nationally and internationally important wetlands, rivers, and lakes that are highly sensitive to environmental pressures. Only 22% of lakes and 12% of our protected freshwater rivers and streams are in favourable condition principally due to nutrient pollution from wastewater and agriculture.


The supply and demand gap

Water companies provide around 14 billion litres of water a day for public water supply. On average, households use 144 litres of water per person per day. The National Infrastructure Commission has recommended, due to the increasing pressures, around 4 billion litres of additional water a day will be needed in England by 2050.


The challenge increases when considering the regional variation of water use across England (see figure 3) caused by different types of industry and population levels, as well as current levels of water company leakage (figure 4). This Plan sets out how we will close this gap through increased supply and greater water efficiency, including reducing leakage.


Figure 3: water consumption in litres per person per day, mapped by water company in England (average for metered and non-metered households) in the period 2021 to 2022



Figure 3 is a map showing the regional variation across England in average household water consumption, by water company area.


The areas of highest consumption, above 155 litres per household per day, are in the extreme south-west, the central southern coast, the home counties, and the north-east. The areas of lowest consumption, with less than 140 litres per household per day, are found in parts of the south-east, in the West Midlands, and across Yorkshire.




Figure 4: leakage as a percentage of ‘distribution input’ mapped by water company in England in the period 2021 to 2022. ‘Distribution input’ is the amount of water put into the water supply distribution network by water companies


Figure 4 is a map showing regional variation across England in water supply network leakage, by water company. Leakage is measured as a percentage of the ‘distribution input’, which is the amount of water put into the water supply distribution network by water companies.


The areas with the highest rates of leakage (above 22% of the distribution input) are in London, the upper Thames river catchments, the West Midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west. The areas with the lowest rates of leakage (below 16% of the distribution input) are in the East of England, Somerset and the south-west.


The source data for figures 3 and 4 are available on request from the Environment Agency by sending an email to enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk.


Who is responsible for managing the water system?

Each of us, including water companies, farmers, regulators, and departments across government have a role to play in managing these pressures and improving the water system.

The UK government, principally through Defra, is responsible for setting the overall legal and policy framework for water in England. These laws set out requirements for people and industries. This covers everything from fishing licences for individuals, drinking water quality regulations for water companies and advice for farmers, to the comprehensive regulatory framework that governs the water industry – both users and suppliers.


Within government, other key departments involved include the Department for Transport, which is responsible for aspects of the transport network, like strategic roads, that are a source of pollution in water bodies. Whilst the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is responsible for housing and planning.


Water policy is devolved across the UK. Given we share cross border river catchments, we will continue to work closely with the Devolved Administrations to consider the application of the Plan to these catchments.


Defra is also the lead department for our principal arm’s-length bodies and regulators.

Recognising the monopoly afforded to water and sewerage companies alongside their statutory obligations, Ofwat (a non-ministerial department) acts as the economic regulator holding the water companies to account on cost-effective delivery of agreed plans. The government issues a Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat, setting government’s priorities for Ofwat’s regulation of the water industry in England.


The Environment Agency implements the permitting and licensing regimes, with inspections and enforcement action. The Environment Agency also leads on the development of the Water Industry National Environment Programme and is responsible for assessing the water resource planning for each water company.


Natural England is the government’s advisor on the natural environment. They protect and improve England’s natural environment and advise on the impacts on water dependent habitat sites.

The Drinking Water Inspectorate provides independent reassurance on the quality of drinking water. It also investigates disruption to supply, and the quality of water supplied, including the role of local authorities regarding private water supplies.


Government and regulators use a variety of powers and levers available to improve the water system, particularly focusing on regulation of the water industry, and licences and permits for industry. Most recently, we enacted new powers through the Environment Act 2021 to improve the water environment and the resilience of our water supply. We have already started to use these powers in collaboration with regulators – we legislated for specific targets to improve water quality and reduce water demand. Ofwat are changing water and sewerage company licence conditions to link dividends to performance, including environmental performance, after we gave Ofwat powers through the Environment Act 2021 to change water company and sewerage licences without consent from these companies.


Finally, businesses and individual households also have a role to play, including complying with permits and disposing of items responsibly, for example:

  • not putting fats and oils down sinks or other items like wet wipes into toilets

  • not littering

  • careful management of slurry on farms

  • installing rainwater butts

  • sensible use of water

  • repairing leaks

  • using more water efficient resources

These actions will help reduce pollution and our use of water.


What we have already delivered

Over the last few years, we have:

  • set new legally binding targets to significantly reduce pollution from farming, wastewater, and abandoned metal mines, and a water demand target to increase the resilience of supplies and leave more water in the environment

  • made the environment a key priority in our Strategic Policy Statements for Ofwat to channel water industry investment

  • supported funding for local catchment-based partnerships to develop local strategies for improving water quality, and co-ordination between the public, businesses, and environmental non-governmental organisations

  • doubled funding to £15 million to cover all farmland in England under the Catchment Sensitive Farming programme which gives free advice to farmers across the country to improve their practices and reduce pollution

  • opened the first year of farming funding through the new Sustainable Farming Incentive to pay farmers to adopt more sustainable farming approaches

  • required £2.5 billion of investment in wastewater treatment works between 2020 and 2025 to halve phosphorus discharges

  • introduced new legal requirements on water companies to upgrade wastewater treatment works to their highest nutrient removal level in designated areas where protected habitat sites are in unfavourable condition

  • published our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, requiring water companies to deliver their largest ever environmental infrastructure investment – with an expected £56 billion of capital investment over 25 years

  • expanded storm overflow monitors from only 10% in 2015 to over 90% now, with 100% coverage of storm overflows by the end of this year

  • unlocked an additional £469 million of investment to develop new large-scale water infrastructure, including transfers, recycling, and reservoirs, and set up the Regulators Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development programme to support their delivery

  • required water companies to produce high quality Water Resources Management Plans and drought plans to ensure water supply meets our demands, and we are ready for periods of drought in a changing climate

  • established the Water and Abandoned Metal Mines Programme which has started work on cleaning up legacy pollution from abandoned metal mines, constructing 3 treatment schemes and 20 diffuse measures so far

  • taken action on plastics, including banning microbeads from rinse-off personal care products and banning multiple single-use plastic products

  • designated new bathing waters, and we recently consulted on designating more

  • improved water quality through the Road Investment Strategy 2020 to 2025 – so far National Highways has delivered over 30 water quality initiatives, improving almost 20 miles of water bodies

  • provided £27 million of funding for local projects to improve the water environment in rural England through the Water Environment Grant

Our plan

We will go further to deliver clean and plentiful water. In the 2023 Environment Improvement Plan (EIP23), we set out the first steps of our reform programme for the water system. This Plan builds on this and outlines additional actions we must take to meet our water targets and transform the water system.

We will:

  1. Transform management of the whole water system – improve how we manage our water system in a joined-up way to make sure it is fit to deliver for water supply and the environment.

  2. Deliver a clean water environment for nature and people – address each of the multiple pressures and sources of pollution on our water bodies.

  3. Secure a plentiful supply of water – meet our long-term water needs for people, businesses, and the environment by closing the 4 billion litre a day supply-demand gap in public water supply.

Delivery of this plan will also contribute to the recovery of nature, achieving Net Zero and providing additional environmental, public health and wellbeing benefits.


Chapter 1: transforming management of the whole water system

Integrated approach across catchments

To improve management of the water system, we will take an approach that considers all pressures in the round, rather than in isolation. This integrated approach to water management is the foundation of our Plan for Water. We will reinforce this with a clear and streamlined policy and legal framework, delivered by regulators and arm’s-length bodies working smartly together.


A water catchment is an area of land through which water from rain, melting snow, or ice, drains into a body of water such as a river, lake, or reservoir.


Healthy and naturally functioning catchments hold more water in soils, filter pollutants, and provide essential habitats. This improves water quality, reduces drought, supports wildlife, and increases flood resilience. It also cuts costs to farmers by reducing the amount of fertiliser and other inputs they lose to soil erosion and run-off. Less pollution enters our seas and oceans to protect our marine life. Rivers and groundwaters from which we abstract can store more water throughout the year and provide a more stable water supply for households and businesses.


Water companies can play a part by treating wastewater using both traditional wastewater treatment and nature-based solutions, such as integrated wetlands. Treatment techniques can recover nutrients from wastewater, which means those nutrients can be recycled back via farmers into the soil, supporting a circular economy.


Case study: Bristol Avon Catchment Partnership

The Bristol Avon catchment is a unique and beautiful network of rivers, streams, and lakes. Over the past 300 years, the river has been progressively constrained by hundreds of weirs, walls, and culverts. Together with run-off from agriculture and urban areas, this has led to poor water quality and degraded habitats for wildlife.


The Bristol Avon Catchment Partnership, co-hosted by Wessex Water and the West of England Rural Network, was one of the original pilots of the ‘Catchment-Based Approach’ in 2012. In the past, management of the water environment has been fragmented. The catchment-based approach brings all organisations and groups together to make decisions at a river catchment scale.


So far, the Bristol Avon Catchment Partnership Fund has funded 44 projects, contributed £230,000 in funding, and secured a further £326,000 in match funding. This has been used to deal with water-related issues, from supporting community groups to improve their local water environments, to aiding the recovery of healthy and diverse fish populations. Significantly, the outcomes from these projects have led to further investment in excess of £7 million.


1.1 Join up water management in catchments

We will identify problems and solutions in a coordinated, collaborative way by bringing organisations and funding together to deliver water improvements. River catchment groups, including water companies, local authorities, and internal drainage boards, are an integral way of delivering this. Catchment groups have invested over £15 million in 10 years, raised an additional £45 million from wider sources through catchment-based approaches, and enhanced around 310 miles of river per year. We will build on this success.


Nature-based solutions deliver multiple benefits for the environment, when used in the right places. Catchment-based decision making, supported by the right data, helps identify these locations and enables direct investment where it can deliver the most impact. It is essential to bring together the different sources of funding available to improve the water environment – from environmental land management schemes to ‘biodiversity net gain’ delivery. In our Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat, we were also clear that water companies should increase their use of nature-based solutions to complement other schemes to improve the water environment.


We will deliver tailored long-term catchment action plans with new funding for local groups to improve all water bodies in England.

We will:

  • improve delivery and coordination at a catchment level with tailored long-term catchment plans that cover all water bodies – catchment plans will set out the key issues and priorities for action, including priorities identified in Local Nature Recovery Strategies

  • increase funding for catchment groups and improve their capacity to deliver improvements through the right tools, data, and approaches

  • unlock more green finance to manage water in an integrated way by removing barriers which limit investment in nature-based solutions - as outlined in our new Green Finance Strategy published last month

1.2 Streamline our water policy and legal framework

A clear and robust framework underpins our whole management of the water system. The current water and floods policy and legal framework has been developed incrementally over time, resulting in over 15 national plans and strategic documents. Whilst each plan has its own purpose, we want to make the whole framework more outcome-focussed and fully integrated with other environmental plans and government delivery plans. This will ensure efficient delivery of our water policies on the ground across catchments, and an increase in the use of nature-based solutions.


The Water Framework Directive and its implementation through River Basin Management Plans was introduced in 2000. To deliver improvements in the quality of the water environment, we consider there to be opportunities to improve the regulatory system through reviewing the implementation of the Water Environment Regulations 2017 now that we have left the EU. For example, we can improve the targeting of investment to ensure environmental improvements are done where they will have the greatest impact, to achieve our objective of restoring 75% of waters to good ecological status and continuing to take an ecosystem approach to managing the water environment.

Our policy and legal framework will be more streamlined, with greater join-up between water and flood planning, and aligned with Local Nature Recovery Strategies.

We will:

  • better integrate water and flood planning by reforming River Basin Management Plans and flood risk management planning – ensuring integration with water company plans

  • align water and flood planning with Local Nature Recovery Strategies and the future Land Use Framework to make sure we are taking actions – especially nature-based solutions – where they will have the biggest impact

  • review the implementation of the Water Environment Regulations 2017 to improve on-the-ground water outcomes whilst retaining our goal to restore 75% of water bodies to good ecological status – we will consult on any proposed changes

1.3 Smarter regulation

The water regulators and arm’s length bodies work together to ensure all sectors, for example the water industry and the farming industry, are fulfilling their legal responsibilities. Within the water industry, the current environmental performance of water companies is mixed. Some have not met expectations or have not improved at the pace required by the public, regulators, and government.

Water companies will face bigger penalties if they break the law.


Government and regulators are taking further steps to drive improvements in water company performance across the whole industry. This means more co-ordinated action across the regulators of the water industry when necessary.


We will fund more inspections and set new targets for the Environment Agency’s oversight of water companies.


We will strengthen our powers, including those of regulators, to hold water companies and other responsible parties to account for cleaning up water bodies.

We are:

  • increasing the Environment Agency’s enforcement capacity by boosting their budget by an extra £2.2 million a year

  • holding water companies to account – regulators are undertaking the largest investigation in history into water company compliance with environmental law

  • enabling Ofwat, through new powers in the Environment Act 2021, to change water company licence conditions without consent, and link water company dividend payments to environmental performance

  • supporting Ofwat’s changes to ensure that shareholders, not customers, will pay for water company executive bonuses where these companies are unable to demonstrate their pay award decisions reflect performance expectations

We will:

  • change the law to increase the maximum amount the Environment Agency can penalise water companies for damaging the environment – we are consulting on penalty cap options, including our preferred proposal to remove the cap and enable the Environment Agency to issue unlimited penalties

  • expand penalties to include a wider range of environmental offences

  • review permit charges on water companies to fund more inspections and set new targets for the Environment Agency’s oversight of water companies

  • work with Ofwat to require improvements, where necessary, to the oversight of water company performance at executive and board level

  • support Ofwat and the Environment Agency to update the memorandum of understanding which exists between them for enhanced joint oversight of water companies

We are accelerating water company infrastructure.

Around £1.6 billion of new investment will be directed into vital infrastructure to improve the water quality of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters and secure future water supplies.


Defra commissioned water companies to accelerate investments over the next two years to decrease storm overflow discharges, reduce nutrient pollution from treatment works and address water resilience challenges. Ofwat agreed that these schemes could be funded through its transition expenditure programme and on 3 April, it published its draft decisions, taking into account the views of the Environment Agency, the Drinking Water Inspectorate and the Consumer Council for Water. Ofwat’s consultation on its draft decisions will close on 24 April 2023.


As part of the new package of investment, companies will spend around £1.1 billion to eliminate 10,000 storm overflow discharges per year in areas including Lake Windermere, the River Wharfe, Falmouth and Sidmouth. Around £160 million will fund improvements at 14 wastewater treatment works, which will significantly reduce phosphorus pollution in protected site catchments and support sustainable housing development.


The new investment will also include around £400 million for 18 schemes to increase England’s water resilience, with projects that increase water capacity as well as encouraging water efficiency and reducing leaks on customer pipes.


These new schemes will deliver our goal of clean and plentiful water and provide an important boost for regional jobs, businesses and local communities.


Further information on the new infrastructure projects can be found in Ofwat’s accelerated investment delivery project plan.


1.4 Improve data and analytics

Over the last decade we have significantly improved monitoring of water bodies. Before 2010, monitoring was insufficient. We ramped up the number of sites monitored in 2013 and had a fully comprehensive ‘census’ of the state of the water environment in 2015. This provided a strong baseline for metrics and a better-informed approach to testing. Our monitoring and reporting is now targeted at locations where there are likely to be problems, so we can be more agile with effective interventions.

We will:

  • complete roll-out of monitors by the end of this year to assess the frequency and duration of all storm overflow discharges across the country – we are currently at over 90% roll-out

  • change the law to require continuous water quality monitoring upstream and downstream of storm overflows and wastewater treatment works to understand the impact on water quality in real-time

  • deliver the Natural Capital Ecosystem Assessment programme to create a smarter, more innovative, and accessible evidence base - including monitoring in more places and creating more metrics

  • improve and modernise our modelling capability so we can predict how effective policies are, detect emerging threats and assess how changes to the climate, economy, and technology could impact water

All storm overflows will be monitored by the end of this year.

A case study for the use of improved data and analytics is the Stiffkey River catchment ‘digital twin’.


Data is essential to effective decision making at a catchment level.

Microsoft, Anglian Water and Avanade are developing a ‘digital twin project’ for the River Stiffkey catchment in North Norfolk. The river Stiffkey is almost 20 miles long and at moderate ecological status. The catchment covers over 14,000 hectares.


Digital twins are data-driven, digital representations of processes and systems, and can be used to build a ‘virtual model’ of a river catchment. The digital twin presents information on effluent flows, historic effluent and river water quality data, biodiversity data, river flows, storm overflows, and weather. In the future, this could radically improve the ability of decision makers to forecast and model different scenarios for river improvement at a catchment level.


By unifying the various sources of data and making them transparent and available to users, from farmers to environmental groups, it will improve decision-making at a catchment scale and give local communities better information about the catchment environment.


Chapter 2: delivering a clean water environment, for people and nature

A healthy water environment is essential for human health and wellbeing, wildlife, and the economy. We can only meet our commitments to reverse the decline in species abundance with clean and plentiful water.


When in a healthy and naturally functioning state, rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, wetlands, estuaries, and coasts deliver multiple benefits for society. These benefits include flood risk management, carbon sequestration, clean water, and drought resilience. Access to blue spaces can also boost health and wellbeing. Restoring our water habitats will mean that people and wildlife can still benefit from these ecosystems for generations to come.


New funding

We already direct investment towards improving the water environment. Through the environmental land management schemes, we are rewarding farmers who go beyond the regulatory minimum and take actions to improve the environment. Through the Water Industry National Environment Programme, we set out the actions water companies must do to improve the water environment.


2.1 Launch the Water Restoration Fund

We are creating a new Water Restoration Fund to further boost investment in our precious natural environment. The Water Restoration Fund will be made up of money from water company environmental fines and penalties which come from water company profits. This will be additional to the money water companies must already pay to clean up the impact of pollution incidents that breach their permit conditions.


Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 56 prosecutions against water companies, resulting in record fines of over £141 million. In 2019, Ofwat required Southern Water to pay £126 million for breaching environment commitments. This package saw Southern Water pay a fine of £3 million, with £123 million returned to customers.


Currently the money collected from fines and penalties is returned to HM Treasury.


Our new Water Restoration Fund will use money from water company fines and penalties – taken from company profits, not customers – and reinvest this into water environment improvements.

We will:

  • channel the money from water company environmental fines and penalties into projects across England which improve the water environment through the newly created central Water Restoration Fund

  • fund a wide range of projects to improve the water environment, water management, and restore protected sites, which will include activities such as re-meandering rivers; removing invasive non-native species; creating and restoring water-dependent habitats, such as wetlands; removing barriers to enable fish and other species’ natural movement in rivers; and supporting catchment partnership groups in local delivery

Reducing pollution from wastewater, urban areas and transport

Pollution from towns, cities, and transport negatively impact our water environment. We will step up our actions to keep pace with the growing pressures from climate change, population growth, and urbanisation.


Case study: Thames Tideway Tunnel

London’s Victorian sewers were designed to serve 4 million people. Now, nearly 9 million people live in London, using that same sewerage network. Storm overflows are being used too often to relieve the pressure on the network.


In 2016, Thames Tideway began constructing a new “super sewer” for London - the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Connecting Acton and Greenwich to the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, this is the largest water infrastructure project ever undertaken in the UK, costing £4.4 billion.


The innovative financial support package provided by government means Tideway, the private sector company financing and building the tunnel, has been able to access low-cost borrowing to fund the project. The 15-mile tunnel will offer radical improvements to the current sewerage network. Once complete, the Thames Tideway Tunnel will be connected to the Lee Tunnel to form the London Tideway Tunnel, reducing spills by 95%.


2.2 Improve wastewater treatment

Wastewater is treated by water companies and returned to the environment. Although this removes almost all harmful substances, treated wastewater is still one of the biggest pressures on the water system. In particular, treated wastewater is the biggest source of phosphorus in rivers. When there is too much phosphorus in water bodies, eutrophication can occur. This results in excessive growth of algae and aquatic plants, leading to algal blooms and less oxygen for species.


By reducing nutrient pollution from wastewater, we will improve water quality and protect our habitat sites, whilst also reducing existing nutrient mitigation requirements on developers and helping to facilitate the delivery of sustainable housing.


To drive improvements in wastewater treatment, we have set a new, ambitious, legally binding target in the Environment Act 2021, to reduce phosphorus from treated wastewater by 80% by 2038 against a 2020 baseline. In EIP23 we set an interim target to achieve a 50% reduction by 2028.


We are requiring water companies to reduce phosphorus from treated wastewater by 50% by 2028.

Wastewater treatment processes generate roughly 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector. To meet their contribution to net zero, water companies need to use more sustainable treatment methods, such as nature-based solutions like integrated wetlands. Integrated wetlands can be installed at the end of a wastewater treatment work. The wetland removes excess nutrients from the wastewater whilst also providing other environmental benefits such as carbon capture and habitat creation.

We are:

  • requiring water companies to invest £2.5 billion to reduce nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment works between 2020 and 2025

  • requiring water companies to upgrade 160 wastewater treatment works across the country to the highest standards for phosphorus removal by 2028, which will see at least a 50% reduction in phosphorus pollution by 2028 relative to a 2020 baseline

  • encouraging water companies to use treatment methods that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, remove more nutrients, and deliver multiple environmental benefits, for example, integrated wetlands, as set out in our Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat

We will:

  • reduce nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment works in habitats sites in unfavourable condition by requiring water companies to upgrade their wastewater treatment works to the highest standards for nutrient removal – this will allow for the use of nature-based solutions, such as integrated wetlands to remove nutrients, and lead to an estimated reduction of around 70% in phosphorous loads and around 57% in nitrogen loads from wastewater treatment works

  • explore the potential to generate resources, heat, and energy from wastewater to feed into the national grid by commissioning research to improve our understanding of emissions from wastewater, and using lessons learned from projects such as Low Carbon Farming’s greenhouse projects, which aims to capture waste heat from nearby water treatment works and inject it into greenhouses through ground source heat pumps

  • promote a circular economy by commissioning research on alternative wastewater treatment methods that use fewer chemicals, use less energy, and recover waste nutrients, such as biological treatment and nature-based solutions

2.3 Reduce storm overflow discharges

Storm overflows are the result of Victorian infrastructure. The system combines rainwater from gutters, pavements, driveways, and roads, with wastewater from toilets, bathrooms, and kitchens in the same pipes to move it to wastewater treatment works. Storm overflows are designed to operate as a safety valve to stop sewage backing up into properties during heavy rainfall when the pipes fill up.


A growing population, an increase in hard surfaces, water bodies disconnected from their floodplains, and more frequent and heavier storms because of climate change are putting the system under increased strain. The government has driven increased monitoring, including putting new duties on water companies through the Environment Act 2021, and this has shown that storm overflows are being used far too often.


Solving this problem is a significant task. While we have stopped new developments from combining pipes, there are over 62,000 miles of combined sewers in England, enough pipework to go two and a half times around the Earth.


Improving on this situation requires delivering significant new investment to improve current infrastructure without resulting in disproportionately large increases to customer bills. Eliminating all discharges could cost up to £600 billion, increasing annual water bills up to around £820 per year by 2049.


We want to see nature-based solutions used, where appropriate. For example, Wessex Water have made effective use of reed beds to accommodate excess water when groundwater infiltrates the sewerage network, reducing overflow to rivers. The reed beds, meanwhile, provide a valuable habitat for species such as dragonflies and warblers.


Water companies will invest £56 billion over 25 years to reduce storm overflows as a result of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.


Although we cannot instantly stop all overflows being used, we are directing huge investment to address the issue. In August 2022, we published the landmark Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan which will see the toughest ever crackdown on pollution from storm overflow spills. It sets new requirements on water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £56 billion of capital investment over 25 years to reduce storm overflows.


This will be used to fund a range of projects, for example separating surface water so that it doesn’t mix with sewage and is diverted to water gardens or wetlands instead, or installing wastewater treatment technologies at storm overflows themselves, so that the risk of harm from discharges is reduced which will reduce the volume of wastewater entering the sewerage network.


We are:

  • increasing transparency and enabling swifter enforcement by regulators by requiring water companies to install event duration monitors on all storm overflows – we will achieve 100% roll-out by the end of 2023 – up from only 10% in 2015

  • taking action now by ensuring water companies deliver over 800 improvements to storm overflows throughout England by 2025

  • building one of Europe’s largest privately financed infrastructure projects to reduce sewage discharges – £4.4 billion will be invested in the Thames Tideway Tunnel – a 15-mile-long ‘super sewer’ 7.2 metres in diameter, that will be completed in 2025

We will:

  • tighten permits issued to water companies for storm overflows to make sure water companies deliver the targets in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan

  • commission water companies to provide action plans on all permitted storm overflows across the country – this will allow government and regulators to drive delivery of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan

  • introduce an enhanced and world-leading monitoring programme requiring water companies to monitor and report, in near-real time, the impact that storm overflows and sewage treatment works have on water quality to inform swimmers and other recreational users of our rivers and beaches

We will commission water companies to develop action plans for every permitted storm overflow in the country.


Timeline of action on storm overflows

Since privatisation, action has been taken to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows to designated bathing waters. Between 1989 and 2020, approximately 7,000 storm overflows were improved.


In July 2013, the government instructed water companies to comprehensively monitor when and for how long their storm overflows operate. In 2015, only 10% of overflows had monitors, by 2022 it was over 90%, and by the end of 2023 it will be 100%. This increase in monitoring has revealed the extent of the sewage discharge problem.


From 2015 to 2020, £3.5 billion was invested to improve the environment. Action on storm overflows was focused on rolling out monitoring to more than half of all overflows.


From 2020 to 2025 water companies are investing £7.1 billion on environmental improvements. This includes £3.1 billion invested in storm overflows – on the Thames Tideway Tunnel super sewer, and over 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025.


In August 2020, we set up the Storm Overflows Taskforce, with representatives from Defra, Ofwat, the Environment Agency, the Rivers Trust, Consumer Council for Water, and water industry, to support the design of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.


In March 2021, the Environment Agency published annual spill data for all monitored storm overflows for the first time.


In November 2021, we put in place a raft of new requirements in the landmark Environment Act 2021 to address pollution from storm overflows:

  • a duty on government to publish a plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows and to reduce their impact

  • a duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis

  • a duty on government to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate storm overflows in England and the costs and benefits of those actions

  • a duty on water companies to publish near real time information (within 1 hour of commencement) of an overflow, its location, and when it ceases

  • a duty on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow or a sewage disposal works

  • a duty enshrined in law to require water companies to secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows

In August 2022, we published the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.

In February 2023, we outlined that all water and sewerage companies in England will need to produce an action plan on every storm overflow in England.


In March 2023, Defra and Ofwat announced £1.1 billion of new investment, starting in the next two years, to eliminate 10,000 storm overflow discharges a year across 10 schemes, including:

  • Lake Windermere

  • the River Wharfe

  • Falmouth, Sidmouth, Solent, Chichester and Langstone harbours

  • the North Kent coast.

These schemes are subject to a consultation, which closes on 24 April 2023.


2.4 Design towns and cities for water sustainability

Many of our towns and cities have been paved over with hard, impermeable surfaces causing rainwater to enter the sewerage system, or to directly enter water bodies, rather than soaking into the ground. Sustainable drainage systems such as rain gardens, ponds, wetlands, and grass roofs reduce the amount and speed of water being added to the water system. These reduce the risk of surface water flooding, improve water quality, and benefit wildlife. Reducing the pressure on the sewerage system will reduce the use of storm overflows.


Yorkshire Water have demonstrated the effective use of ‘rain gardens’, combined with arrangements to separate surface water and control the flow to reduce the amount of water entering the sewerage system and the use of storm overflows in Leeds. Many organisations, including water companies, local authorities, and housing developers, have a role to play in the design of our drainage and sewerage system.


We are rolling out standardised sustainable drainage systems in all new developments (read more about this here)


We are:

  • requiring standardised sustainable drainage systems in new housing developments in 2024, subject to final decisions on scope, threshold, and process following consultation in 2023

We will:

  • improve drainage and water quality, and reduce surface water flood risk, by requiring water companies to produce Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans (also known as Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans)

  • consider how planning policy can promote local design decisions that reduce surface water flooding and water scarcity through, for example, dual pipe systems and water reuse options

  • consult on whether to make water companies statutory consultees on certain planning applications

2.5 Reduce pollution from transport

Water running off roads, railways, and airports can carry pollutants directly into water bodies. Most microplastics entering the water environment from the strategic road network are from car tyres and road marking abrasions being washed into water bodies.

We are considering actions to reduce the impacts of the strategic road network on water quality as part of developing the next Road Investment Strategy.


Run off from the strategic road network, along with pollutants from other sources, contribute to water bodies not achieving good ecological status. National Highways manage the strategic road network according to the requirements set out by the Department for Transport and prioritise action through the Road Investment Strategy.


A smaller number of water bodies are also impacted by roads managed by local highway authorities. Treatment systems – including nature-based solutions – can be put in place to capture and filter pollution run-off at outfall drains before being discharged into water bodies.

We are:

  • improving water quality through the Road Investment Strategy 2020 to 2025 – so far National Highways has delivered over 30 water quality initiatives, improving almost 20 miles of water bodies through mitigation of medium, high, and very high-risk outfalls and other river enhancement projects

We will:

  • consider what actions government can take to bring forward or reprioritise ongoing work to reduce the impacts of the strategic road network on water quality as part of developing the next Road Investment Strategy – this process will involve considering the responses to the forthcoming public consultation on National Highways

  • work across government to explore targeted action on roads managed by local authority highways agencies where evidence shows transport pollution is preventing a water body from achieving good ecological status

Farming and our rural landscape

Farmers and rural landowners have a critical role in protecting and enhancing the rural landscape and water environment. There are many examples of good environmental management by farmers. However, we must acknowledge that agriculture is a significant source of pollution, particularly of:

  • nitrogen

  • phosphorus

  • sediment

Whilst all 3 are needed to successfully grow food, there are opportunities to reduce their run-off into the water environment. Our new farming schemes will support farmers to improve water quality and create new habitats.


To drive progress, we have set a new legally binding target under the Environment Act 2021 to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from agriculture entering the water environment by 40% by 2038. There is an interim target of 10% by 31 January 2028,and 15% in catchments containing protected sites in unfavourable condition due to nutrient pollution.


We are designing agricultural schemes and other incentives so that farmland alongside rivers creates space for nature.


Case study: the Upper Axe landscape recovery project

The River Axe, a special area of conservation in Dorset and Devon, is polluted as a result of agricultural and rural land activities. This is leading to loss of habitats and fish species.


The Upper Axe landscape recovery project, which brings together more than 20 farmers, smallholders, and landowners in the area, aims to improve the condition of the special area of conservation and restore over 14 miles of the River Axe.


The use of regenerative farming techniques and extensive grazing along the river corridor will reduce the diffuse pollution entering the river. The project also plans to recreate a rich mosaic of water-dependent habitats, including floodplain meadows, wet woodlands, and wood pasture.


As a result, the quality of the water in the river and adjacent habitats should improve, allowing a host of rare species to flourish, including:

  • water voles

  • otters

  • common toads

  • kingfishers in the floodplains

  • Atlantic salmon, brown trout and lampreys which will have more opportunity to spawn and mature in the river channel

The local community will also benefit from the project, from:

  • purer water

  • increased access

  • reduced flood risk

2.6 Encourage and incentivise best farming practices

A healthy environment supports profitable food production. Planting crops on fields in winter promotes healthier soils that absorb and retain more water and prevents erosion. This helps to refill groundwater aquifers to protect against drought. Grassy and wetland buffer strips reduce run-off of pollutants and sediments into our rivers.


Our goal is that farmland alongside rivers is involved in creating space for nature, reducing run-off, and supporting river recovery in farming and rural landscapes.


We are transitioning away from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy scheme and reinvesting the same funding into the sector through our environmental land management schemes. We are setting up 3 schemes to pay farmers and land managers to provide environmental goods and services alongside food production. Actions funded by environmental land management schemes are essential to deliver clean and plentiful water.


We will increase uptake of our farming schemes to cover 70% of farmland and 70% of all farms by 2028 – up from the current 34% of farmland.

We are:

  • expanding the successful one-to-one farmer advice and guidance programme by doubling the funding available for the Catchment Sensitive Farming programme to £15 million to cover all farmland in England

We will:

  • pay for water body buffers to help farmland alongside rivers create space for nature, reduce run-off, and support river recovery, and consider regulation in future if needed

  • increase uptake of our farming schemes to cover 70% of farmland and 70% of all farms by 2028 – up from the current 34% of farmland

  • deliver six new Sustainable Farming Incentive standards this year with actions that will benefit the water environment

  • identify innovations through the Farming Innovation Fund and secure greater uptake of precision farming

What are the environmental land management schemes and what are they doing for the water environment?


Sustainable Farming Incentive will pay farmers to adopt and maintain sustainable practices that protect and improve the natural environment while also supporting food production. Sustainable Farming Incentive is supporting farmers to use their land in a way that keeps valuable nutrients and soil on the farm and stops them running off into water bodies.


Countryside Stewardship will pay for more targeted actions in specific locations, features, and habitats. Countryside Stewardship is paying farmers to create and manage habitats and provide natural flood management, protecting the water environment. There will be an extra incentive for people to join up across local areas to deliver bigger and better results through Countryside Stewardship Plus.


Landscape Recovery will pay for bespoke, longer-term, larger-scale projects to improve the natural environment. The first round of projects will restore 400 miles of rivers and streams.


2.7 Reduce pollution from farms

Since 2019, 5,437 farms have been inspected and provided with advice, leading to over 8,202 improvement actions. Where farmers do not take inspectors’ advice, regulators will be expected to enforce the law. Since February 2022 the Environment Agency has started formal enforcement action against over 140 farms.


We will consult on extending environmental permitting to dairy and intensive beef farms and improve permitting of pig and poultry farms.

We are:

  • delivering 4,000 farm inspections per year by boosting funding to the Environment Agency – targeting protected nature sites in an unfavourable condition

  • improving farmer compliance by trialling new innovative methods for checking compliance through our Testing Approaches to the Regulation of Agriculture project (Project TARA) and spending £1.3 million per year engaging with farmers to influence them to change practices

  • applying environmental permitting to large intensive pig and poultry farms

We will:

  • consult on proposals to extend environmental permitting to dairy and intensive beef farms

  • improve the effectiveness of environmental permitting of pig and poultry farms in reducing water pollution while working to maximise the efficiency of the permit setting process

  • work with farmers to review and improve our farming laws to make them clear, simple, and effective at improving the environment

2.8 Improve and transform manure management

Manure from livestock is a valuable resource. It improves soil health and increases organic matter, which helps crops grow and soil retain water. However, when it is in liquid form – known as slurry – it can be difficult and expensive to use properly. Mismanagement, such as spreading on frozen or waterlogged ground, causes serious nutrient pollution and wastes a valuable resource, whilst increasing costs to farmers.


We are more than doubling our first round of the Slurry Infrastructure Grant for farmers to £34 million, with further rounds to be launched later in 2023.

We are:

  • improving farm infrastructure through Countryside Stewardship funding, for example, roofing for manure stores to keep dirty water and effluent separate from rainwater and prevent contamination

We will:

  • provide £34 million of funding through the Slurry Infrastructure Grant for new and expanded covered slurry stores in the highest priority areas of England, for example protected nature sites in unfavourable condition, with even more funding in 2023 and 2024

  • enable on-farm technologies for better use of slurry, including slurry separators, and help farmers store, transport, and apply their organic nutrient through the Farm Equipment and Technology Fund – building on nearly £9 million of investment offered in the first round

  • work with farmers and innovators to identify and promote the use of technologies that improve the efficiency of manure nutrient use and reduce pollution risk

  • facilitate organic fertiliser use through new fertiliser product laws which help give buyers confidence on nutrient content, contaminant risk, and other features of products derived from manures

2.9 Improve regulation of private sewage discharges

In addition to farms, large numbers of properties in rural areas of England rely on on-site water treatment systems as they are not connected to mains sewerage systems. Septic tanks are the most common on-site sewage treatment systems in these areas and are regulated to ensure they are maintained properly and do not cause pollution.


Septic tanks and private sewage treatment works that are not water companies’ responsibility can cause nutrient pollution if not properly maintained. It is estimated that there are approximately 700,000 private sewerage systems in England.


We need to manage the risk to the environment proportionately by enabling homeowners to keep private sewerage systems well maintained and supporting those most in need. Maintaining private sewerage systems can prevent more costly repairs that often only come to light when people sell their homes.


Maintenance of private sewerage systems can prevent more costly repairs for homeowners.

We will:

  • manage the risks from private sewage discharges by reviewing existing regulatory arrangements including, for example, better registration

  • explore funding and other support options for improving septic tank activities

Restoring water habitats

Healthy water habitats are essential for wildlife to thrive. In the Environment Act 2021 we set an apex target for nature to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030. In EIP23 we committed to protecting 30% of our land for nature by 2030. Our work to restore the water system is a fundamental part of achieving these goals.


In EIP23 we pledged that everyone should live within a 15-minute walk of a green or blue space.


Case study: Salmon to South Yorkshire

Up until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the River Don in Yorkshire had an abundant salmon population. This ended as a result of the industrial revolution, when many weirs were built to provide power to mills and allow boats to navigate the river, and the river was polluted by the city’s industry and burgeoning population. Salmon were extinct in the Don by the end of the eighteenth century.


As a result of water quality improvements, by the late 1990s and early 2000s small numbers of salmon were seen below the river barriers in Doncaster. To allow the iconic salmon to return to their historic spawning grounds further upstream, the Don Catchment Rivers Trust, along with Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency, the Canal and Rivers Trust, and local authorities worked for over a decade to build a series of fish passes, easements and weir removals along the Don.


For the first time in 200 years, salmon can now move from the Humber all the way up the River Don to spawning grounds in and around Sheffield.


2.10 Restore protected nature sites

Protected nature sites are internationally important for their abundance of unique wildlife. Two thirds of these sites are dependent on the water environment.


Our extensive inland and coastal wetlands are host to many migratory bird populations, particularly ducks, geese, and wading birds. Of the designated wetlands in England, 73 have been classified under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands as being of international importance. However, these habitats are under significant pressure from pollution and abstraction.


Our new farming schemes are expected to deliver at least half of the change needed to get 75% of protected nature sites to favourable condition by 2042.


In EIP23, we repeated our commitment to restore 75% of protected sites to a favourable condition by 2042. We set interim targets that by 31 January 2028 all protected sites will have an up-to-date condition assessment, and 50% will have actions on track to achieve favourable condition.

We are:

  • ensuring action to reduce pollution from wastewater (action 2.2) and agriculture (action 2.7), as well as managing abstraction (action 3.4), is targeted in unfavourable protected nature sites

  • identifying and mitigating specific diffuse water pollution affecting water dependent protected habitats – through the implementation of Diffuse Water Pollution Plans

  • providing £100,000 to local planning authorities in areas where water dependent habitat sites are in unfavourable condition due to nutrient pollution, to support the delivery of nature-friendly nutrient mitigation schemes

We will:

  • design and deploy Protected Site Strategies where these can provide a route to site recovery and support strategic approaches locally

  • incentivise farmers and land managers to take action through our new farming schemes which are expected to contribute at least 50% of the target of bringing 75% of protected nature sites into favourable condition by 2042

  • reduce nutrient pollution to restore our protected sites and support sustainable development – including introducing a new nutrient mitigation scheme supported by up to £30 million of government funding enabling the creation of new wetland and woodland habitats across the catchments where protected sites are in unfavourable condition – promoting nature recovery and improving access to green space, whilst facilitating the delivery of sustainable housing

2.11 Protect and restore chalk streams

England is home to 85% of all chalk streams. They are the most biodiverse of all English rivers and their special natural heritage makes them England’s equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef. However, chalk streams are threatened by multiple pressures - including over-abstraction, agricultural pollution, and physical modifications.


We are leveraging £1 million investment in partnership projects each year to improve chalk catchments - in addition to supporting the delivery of the National Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy.


In 2021, the catchment-based approach developed the National Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy. Protecting and restoring chalk streams is a priority and the government, as well as regulators, will play a part in delivering the strategy.

We are:

  • reducing the abstraction pressure on chalk streams by designating all chalk catchments as water stressed, which drives action to increase water efficiency

  • reducing the amount of water abstracted from chalk streams by enabling abstractors to find more sustainable sources – over the last 15 years the Environment Agency’s Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme has meant 101 million litres less water a day is abstracted from chalk streams

  • protecting chalk streams from sewage pollution by designating all chalk stream areas as high priority under the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan (action 2.3)

  • ensuring water companies deliver action in the 2020 to 2025 Water Industry National Environment Programme

We will:

  • support delivery of flagship chalk stream restoration projects – ensuring water companies take action through the next Water Industry National Environment Programme by making chalk streams a priority in our Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat

  • increase investment into restoring chalk catchments – leveraging £1 million investment in partnership projects each year starting in 2023

  • address the impact of agricultural pollution on chalk streams by considering chalk streams in the development of environmental land management schemes

  • look for opportunities to deliver on other recommendations published in the Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy, and protect chalk streams, for example reviewing the impact of private sewerage systems on chalk streams

2.12 Improve the condition of our peatlands

Around 11% of England is covered by peatland, with the majority of upland peatlands located in our National Parks. Healthy peatlands contain around 90% water. Peatlands slow the flow of water through the catchment, stabilise river levels, and purify water. This reduces flood risk and makes our rivers cleaner. The estimated annual value to water supply from British peatlands is around £500 million a year.


Over the last few centuries, our peatlands have been degraded due to drainage, afforestation, cultivation, burning and overgrazing. This damages wildlife and increases carbon emissions. Degraded lowland agricultural peat accounts for 3% of England’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and reducing this will require rewetting.


We are launching a new £6.6 million Lowland Peat Research and Development programme.

Our England Peat Action Plan, published in 2021, sets out the government’s plan to restore, responsibly manage, and protect upland and lowland peatlands. In 2021, we commissioned the independent Lowland Agricultural Peat Task Force to improve the condition of England’s peat in the lowlands, comprising some of our most productive agricultural land.


We are:

  • delivering the world leading England Peat Action Plan

  • supporting the uptake of farming on rewetted peat – known as paludiculture – through the £5.6 million Paludiculture Exploration Fund from 2022 to 2025, to support agricultural production and environmental restoration working hand in hand

  • encouraging water companies to restore upland peatlands to help purify river water – reducing costs at water treatment works whilst helping nature

We will:

  • identify the best way to reduce emissions from peatlands – launching a £6.6 million Lowland Peat Research and Development programme in 2023

  • improve our understanding of the lowland peat water challenge and transform the way we use water in these landscapes by developing infrastructure pilot projects from 2023 to 2025

  • improve incentives for landowners to ‘re-wet’ peatlands through environmental land management schemes

2.13 Restore the natural process of water bodies

Human activity over the last few centuries has modified our water bodies and stopped them from functioning naturally. The modifications are a result of our urban, industrial, and agricultural development over hundreds of years – it is the same for many industrialised countries. Some of these modifications can harm ecology, for example, straightened rivers or redundant dams stop fish migration and disrupt the flow of rivers and can lead to flooding downstream. We can help to restore natural processes of water bodies by planting trees alongside them, or by removing redundant structures.


Other modifications, however, serve an essential purpose for society by providing drinking water, flood protection, navigation or increasing health and safety. These water bodies are categorised as artificial or heavily modified water bodies. Artificial or heavily modified water bodies have either been created where no water body existed before, such as canals or reservoirs, or have been heavily altered by human activity. 4 out of 10 water bodies are designated as artificial or heavily modified.


While we can remove redundant physical modifications in water bodies, it is not beneficial to remove modifications which serve an important function, so instead we mitigate the impact of the modification on the environment. For these water bodies, we are aiming to meet ‘good ecological potential’ instead of ‘good ecological status’ (see section ‘What is good ecological potential?’). The current approach to mitigating the impacts of the modification is complex and is a barrier to improving the ecological potential of water bodies.


We will remove redundant physical modifications and restore natural processes using funding from the Water Restoration Fund.


We are:

  • encouraging tree planting along rivers through the England Woodland Creation Offer and enabling private investment for woodland creation through the Woodland Water Code

  • boosting tree planting by investing £2 million through our four-year Woodlands for Water programme

  • partnering with water companies to meet and exceed the water industry target of planting 11 million trees by 2030

We will:

  • remove redundant physical modifications and restore natural processes using funding from the Water Restoration Fund (action 2.1)

  • target the water bodies where modifications are having the biggest impact on wildlife and are stopping us achieving our biodiversity targets

  • improve artificial and heavily modified water bodies by making it simpler to identify and deliver actions to reduce the impact of modification on the water environment

What is good ecological potential?

Artificial or heavily modified water bodies will not function the same as ‘natural’ water bodies and will not meet good ecological status. We therefore judge the health of artificial or heavily modified water bodies using ecological potential.


Ecological potential is determined by an assessment of whether measures are properly in place to mitigate the impacts of the modification on the ecology in the water body. For example, planting reed beds alongside a concrete bank or a fish pass over a weir.


Good ecological potential is the maximum potential an artificial or heavily modified water body can reach. If all mitigation measures are in place, and the water chemistry is assessed as good, then the water body is classified as good ecological potential. The biological elements are monitored, but not included in the assessment of good ecological potential. As with good ecological status, the ‘one-out-all-out’ principle applies, meaning the potential of the water body will follow the worst scoring element.