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Environment Secretary Therese Coffey speaks at the launch of the government's Plan for Water

I am delighted to be launching our Plan for Water – our comprehensive and integrated plan to deliver clean and plentiful supply of water for people, businesses and for nature.

It’s built on a catchment-based approach to managing water including with nature-based solutions, and we will coordinate community by community on how to tackle pollution from every source, to have unlimited penalties on polluters, reinvesting those proceeds into local water restoration projects and to make sure we have sufficient supply for us at home, for businesses, for food security and for nature.

I have lived near rivers, near water, pretty much all of my life, from the Test to the Trent, from the Mersey to the Minsmere; and many others in between.

Every river, every stream has its own sense of magic, with its own special history, its own sense of life changing right throughout the day as that movement of water is critical for the very essence of life itself for us and for nature, and it has long been the lifeblood of our economy for centuries.

The Test, probably the most famous chalk stream in the world, filled with trout, the gravel bed glistening, wildlife and anglers in harmony – though the fish get a bit of a raw deal if the anglers are in luck.

Or the magnificent Mersey – once the extremely murky Mersey – which had its raw sewage pipes spewing out, but they were removed and the river was transformed thanks to the Mersey Basin campaign, a long term campaign. We now see it resplendent with its rich maritime history and the river still being a key economic lifeline for Liverpool.

I could go on, especially as now MP for Suffolk Coastal, which is full of rivers and creeks, my constituency stretches from the Orwell river in the south right up to the Hundred, each with their own tales of yesteryear and being at the heart of the economy and nature today.

I have long been motivated by making sure that we do have clean and plentiful water, and access to that at home and abroad, critical to the health and wellbeing of everyone and every element of wildlife on this planet.

Before becoming an MP, I was a volunteer speaker for Water Aid driven by my desire very much for everyone in this planet to have access to safe, clean water.

That is why I am proud of our government’s work right around the world on delivering clean, safe, water for people and for food production, especially in this time of accelerated climate change where we are seeing desertification on a mass scale.

And we are seeing increasingly those problems at home too.

Last summer we hadreally significant drought, and parts of the country are still considered to be in drought, and we were reminded how precious and finite water really is.

One reason we tend to take water for granted when we turn on our taps is our Victorian water system. It has transformed our health, landscapes, our coastlines for the better, for generations, taking care of our needs in ways that millions of people around the world still lack.

Yet, the pressures have increased dramatically – both on the supply of water and our Victorian sewage network creaking with the increase in pollution.

Just like many other countries, we are now facing the challenges of securing clean and plentiful water for the long term.

We have growing demand on supply, when we already supply 14 billion litres per day, we have been told we need to plan for 4 billion litres per day more by 2050.

When climate change is bringing hotter summers, and wetter, stormier winters.

So, making sure we have a clean and plentiful supply of water is critical for people for business, for nature, and food security.

We do need to take care of water and our Plan is designed to do just that, building on the significant investment and action already undertaken.

Last year, I was pleased that over 72% of our bathing waters in England were classified as ‘excellent’, that’s up from 51% in 2010.

We have much loved species like seahorses, otters and seals returning to our rivers and estuaries.

We have taken on the micro and single-use plastics that wreak such havoc on our wildlife.

We introduced Farming Rules for Water to tackle pollution.

We designated marine conservation zones – our own Blue Belt - and are now designating highly protected marine areas.

However, we still have the scourge of sewage pollution that needs solving once and for all.

It was Richard Benyon, the Water Minister in 2013, who instructed water companies to monitor storm overflows.

Previous governments had not even thought to do this.

And as the lid has been lifted, their significant over-use has been gradually unveiled.

As we dialled up the monitoring, the public has been rightly horrified by how frequently they are now being used.

I agree it is completely unacceptable.

So, as well as leaning on water companies to scale up investment, we are tightening regulation and toughening up enforcement.

And that is why now is the right time for our new comprehensive Plan for Water

  • Working systematically at a local level across catchments

  • Tackling all sources of pollution and improving quality

  • Penalising polluters

  • Managing supply and demand for water, for our homes, for businesses and for food security

The scale, the detail and the deliverability of this Plan I think puts it in a different league to anything we have ever done before – and I believe that will make all the difference.

Collaboration and coordination, community by community, catchment by catchment, is critical to improving our water – both on pollution and supply – and we will support that with targeted funding.

Backed by government, strengthening our regulators, supporting our communities, I will make delivery of this plan as straightforward as I possibly can.

There will be nowhere to hide for those who continue to pollute our rivers, with support for those who want to do the right thing, with the system by default expected to say yes to help deliver those improvements.

We all agree pollution is simply not acceptable.

So, we will penalise polluters, making it easier for regulators to do that job, we will get farmers the kit and support they need to manage the slurry and reduce the run-off, and we will tackle every other source of pollution head on – including run-off from our roads, banning those wet wipes that have plastic in them. It’s great that some retailers have already got the message from previous signals and we are going to complete the job by delivering the regulation.

And I want to work with industry to have cheap, effective filters to stop microplastics leaving our washing machines – that’s a long running campaign by the Women’s Institute which I fully expect industry to deliver.

And we will also be banning chemicals that hang around in our rivers forever doing untold damage.

But, clearly, the penalties that have been deployed so far – even though we have now seen the largest, over £90 million, deployed recently - they have not been a sufficient deterrent for poor performance – so, I am going to make those penalties unlimited.

And with establishing a Water Restoration Fund reinvesting those penalties into local projects to help repair the damage, we will target efforts where they are needed most urgently, where we can achieve greatest impact – that’s on protected sites, chalk streams, peatlands, wetlands, we are going to tackle pollution, and support wildlife.

And, we will seek to use technology and innovation as allies in solving the quality and supply challenges that we face.

Now you may think I have spoken about pollution and sewage enough.

But we do need to keep talking about sewage and how to tackle it.

Our combined sewer network is about sixty-two-thousand-miles long – that’s enough stretch around the world two-and-a-half times, with over 15,000 storm overflows.

And while about 30% of pipes have been renewed since 1990, the scale and complexity of what we need to achieve is absolutely extraordinary.

We have already created the Storm Overflow Reduction Plan which will require the biggest ever investment in water infrastructure of an estimated £56 billion.

We announced this week the speeding up of spending from water companies on storm overflows and other schemes, with an additional £1.6 billion in the next two years, bringing forward projects, fixing problems with major new projects in Lake Windermere, the River Wharfe, Falmouth, Sidmouth, and Drake Reservoir in Warwickshire so we will see more improvement, faster.

I recently re-visited the Thames Tideway Tunnel scheme. Can you believe it was initiated a decade ago, that planning consent went in in February 2013, construction started in 2016, and it will still take till 2025 to complete at an estimated cost of over £4 billion.

But it is expected to reduce storm overflows by at least 94% a year - I would like it to be 100% - but it is just one part of the jigsaw needed.

And while London and the Thames may have space for its new super sewer, wider upgrades to the sewer network could mean years of costly disruptive works in our streets – and without careful management that could put hundreds of pounds on people’s bills.

Because the truth is that however much we all want to see this fixed yesterday, never mind today, there is no way that we can stop pollution overnight.

If there were, I would do it just as quickly – without hesitation.

And anyone who tells you that they can – or indeed get £56 billion of capital investment out the door and into the necessary improvements to fix everything within the next seven years – they are either detached from reality or being definitively dishonest with the public.

And I can, I am and I will use the full force of my powers to make sure that we tackle pollution as quickly as possible.

We were the first government to introduce new legal targets on water companies.

Our Environment Act requires water companies to publish information on overflows in real time, within in the hour, as well as to reduce them progressively.

Last summer, we published our plan for the toughest crackdown yet.

And I said recently that if we can go faster in our timelines, we will.

In February, I made it clear to water companies that they must set out exactly what they will do to clean up the mess – with the action plans on individual storm overflows due on my desk by the summer.

We will have a systematic approach and greater level of detail than ever before.

And let’s be clear.

The real challenge we face is pollution.

The source of it and the treatment of it.

And frankly we are all fed up. I was particularly horrified last week that one of the water companies seemingly did not know the reason for a single one of their overflows being triggered. That is absolutely shocking and reinforced the need for the detailed action plans.

So, I want to be unequivocal.

Water companies need to clean up their act.

Water companies must cover the costs.

And it is up to water companies to make sure they direct any profits they make from bill-payers’ hard-earned money into improvements.

I am not here to be an apologist for the water companies.

Far from it.

They are already subject to a criminal investigation.

But that level of investigation can be time-consuming.

So, we asked Ofwat and the EA what they needed to make improvements and what more they needed to tackle pollution in their role as the regulators – and we included the opportunities for those powers in the Environment Act and those tools are now being used to take on the fight against polluters.

So, as well as leaning on water companies to scale up investment, we are tightening regulation and toughening up enforcement.

We have already increased funding for the Environment Agency to increase enforcement, and now, through Ofwat, we are linking dividends to environmental improvement, to performance, and making sure shareholders cough up to cover bonuses at any company that fails to perform – because it can never be right for customers to be forced to foot the bill to reward those continue to pollute.

We are giving the Environment Agency the power to issue unlimited penalties for a wider range of offences without going through the courts.

That will happen by the end of this year – so polluters, you have been warned, you have to pay up, and pronto.

And in tackling pollution, we want to improve the ecological and chemical status of our waterbodies across the country.

But again this will take some time.

The impact of chemicals and mines long since banned or abandoned will take decades to break down – that is not my opinion, that is the scientific reality.

But as part of the process of formulating our new Plan for Water, I asked our scientists to help me understand why there is such a challenge when it comes to achieving Good Ecological Status in our waterbodies – and again we have been going to a level of detail, picking out is it the fish, is it the PH, is it different elements?

because frankly, I don’t think it is for a lack of effort. Indeed there has been quite a lot of investment going in.

But I have to say it turns out that achieving the gold standard for ecological status would mean taking us back to the natural state of our rivers from the year 1840.

That is neither practical nor desirable in many circumstances.

We are not going to take London back to a time before the Embankment was built, or remove the Thames Barrier – indeed we will need another before the end of the century - no one is contemplating dismantling half of Sheffield to let the River Don run free, but without that, it will never be scored as being ‘excellent’, even though salmon have returned to that part of the river Don for the first time in 200 years.

However, I do want to see systemic improvement, I want to see it delivered and it will be delivered through our catchment-based approach, with an action plan for every water body.

Of course that will involve tackling other sources of pollution.

While we crack down on the big polluters and make them pay, we will back those trying to make sure that they do the right thing and bring up their baseline, so we are tripling the money to help farmers manage slurry to £34 million, there will be another round of funding to help them store more water on their land, and more investment in the tech they need, so we support the sustainable food production that underpins long-term food security.

We are also doubling funding to £15 million, to cover all farmland in England under the Catchment Sensitive Farming programme.

We have seen groups of farms, businesses, and local councils working together and they have already leveraged in an additional £45 million from wider sources, so we want to back their ambition in tackling pollution.

Now while I said we can never stop talking about sewage and what we are going to do about it, I do want to turn to supply.

We are building on this – from making sure water companies have proper plans to improve our resilience to drought and flooding, to requiring them to invest billions of pounds in improvements, and in new large-scale water infrastructure – including transfers, recycling, and reservoirs.

We are publishing our National Policy Statement on Water Resources, which should streamline and speed up our planning processes, so we can build the infrastructure we need more quickly, and make sure our water system is fit for the future, bringing planning for flooding and water together – clearly investing more in improvements, more quickly is front and centre to this plan.

As well as setting an ambitious target for water companies to cut leakage in half, with financial penalties for those who fail to make timely progress, we are helping the water companies in some ways though by making sustainable drainage systems mandatory for new housing from next year.

The savviest developers have already discovered the magical powers of sustainable drainage – in many places they are known as a pond – the rain gardens – that help our sewer networks and provide a boost for biodiversity as well.

I have already mentioned food security and I am really concerned about the supply of water for food security.

I recognise we need to stop over-abstracting where it harms nature, we do need to make sure we have sufficient water for food production.

I see that very much in my role as an MP in Suffolk. Indeed challenges on abstraction has been pretty much the most critical issue there for my farmers since day one of being an MP.

Using water and careful irrigation techniques for many years, I recognise though that still the pressures are growing.

That is why the last time I was in Defra, I tried to bring people together to find a solution.

And I am pleased they did.

The result was the Felixstowe Hydrocycle and even now that is helping farmers make the most of precious freshwater to sustain their crops in the thirsty, sandy Suffolk soils, where both food crops and nature are desperate for clean water. And I am pleased it restored nature too.

The salt marsh is recovering. The extent of creatures there has grown - I have never seen so many swans in one place.

For me, the Felixstowe Hydrocycle is a blue print, not just of the technology but of the partnership approach that made it happen.

And we need that can do attitude replicated in other parts of the country where water supply is under stress. We will also be working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to see what we can do to try to make it easier for farmers to have on-site reservoirs as well, recognising that they want the chance to try to store some water in the winter time.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, I know a lot of people have put a lot of effort into making this come together today.

And I believe in setting out our comprehensive Plan for Water.

We recognise we have an interconnected system. We recognise we have a problem.

And in this plan we are setting out what we believe government, regulators, and water companies can do – to make sure standards and performance keep improving, as well as anticipating and preparing for further challenges ahead.

We are facing into this problem.

No one is shying away from it, because the public rightly expects nothing less – and I have to say to the public I am on your side, and fighting your corner.

Millions of us are already doing our bit on a daily basis at home, being careful with water, so my priority is making sure the water companies and regulators step up and do their bit too, so we make real progress on your priorities. And if we all pull in the same direction – in a sustained, national effort on a scale never undertaken before – we can do it.

So, my hope is that this ambitious, credible, deliverable Plan that I am proud to publish today helps us come together to address the issues we all care so much about, and get the job done,

So we can secure the clean and plentiful water we need, now and for generations to come.

courtesy of


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