Sewage campaign update: enforcing the law and water companies footing the bill

  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish
Sewage pollution is discharged into our rivers, lakes and oceans on a daily basis. ©Shutterstock.

Last Friday (15 September), the High Court dismissed our case against the UK Government to address the torrent of raw sewage polluting rivers and threatening wild fish populations.

Read the judgement here


Our CEO, Nick Measham, said in response to the judgement: “Annoyed not to win is an understatement of how I feel about losing the case but the battle has been worth it. Our legal challenge has clarified that the existing law to protect rivers from untreated sewage (the Urban Water Water Treatment Regulations that came into force in 1994) must now be applied immediately. It has also ensured that the work required to comply with the law must be paid for by the water companies and not loaded onto customers’ water bills”.

“We acted because we were concerned that the Government and the water companies would use the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan to “apply” existing law not now but gradually over the next 25 years. Rivers need immediate action to address illegal sewage discharges now, not another 25 years of continued pollution.”

As long as raw sewage continues to threaten the future of wild fish and their waters, we will keep on campaigning and do everything in our power to stop it.

Nick Measham

Chief Executive, WildFish

What our legal challenge has achieved

As a result of our case, the hard facts clarify that:

  • The Government’s Sewage Discharge Reduction plan does not provide a get-out from the 1994 law (the Urban Waste Water Treatment Regulations) which only allows sewage to be discharged in exceptional weather (subject to some cost benefit assessment) and must be enforced immediately.
  • It is now clear that both OFWAT and the Environment Agency have a duty (not just a power) to enforce the 1994 law.
  • The judge confirmed that the Environment Agency has a duty to revise its permits to meet the 1994 law’s exceptional weather requirement and then enforce the revised permits. Current EA permits allow sewage dumping in any rainfall or snowmelt.
  • The works to comply with the 1994 law are outside the scope of the plan and must be paid for by the water companies not customers.

The lengthy timescales in the plan were designed to protect customers from rapid bill increases. There is no need for this anymore. Applying the existing law should now speed up the clean-up of our rivers.

WildFish ambassador, Feargal Sharkey, said this about the judgement:

The Environment Agency must now make sure that all water company sewage dumping permits are revised, reviewed and amended and must comply with the law. The days of government and regulators simply ignoring the law are over, we will be watching.

Feargal Sharkey

WildFish Ambassador

What happens next?

Focus must now be on ensuring that OFWAT and the Environment Agency enforce the law which has been ignored for almost 30 years. For the water companies, urgent attention must be given to the works required to comply with the 1994 law. We’ll be watching closely to make sure they deliver. We’ll also do our utmost to ensure that the 2024 Price Review reflects these changes.

The recently announced response from the Office for Environmental Protection to our complaint should be extremely helpful in this.

Sewage pollution can starve freshwater species of oxygen, in turn reducing biodiversity and damaging ecosystems. ©Shutterstock

Support our work to Stop The Sewage

This case would not have been possible without you. The continued generosity of our supporters ensures that we can continue the fight to protect wild fish and their waters.

We need to get the law enforced to stop raw sewage wrecking our rivers now and make sure the water companies pick up the bill.

Please join us in the war to stop the rot as we strive for fresh and coastal waters that are clean, healthy and full of life. With your support, we can continue to hold our governments to account and find solutions for rivers before it’s too late.

Join our growing community of members
  • Roger Henderson Kc
    20th September 2023

    Please provide a copy of the judgment. Your words do not explain what relief you sought nor why that relief was refused.

  • user1_immy
    20th September 2023

    Hi Roger, we have just added a copy of the judgement to the top of the news article. It can also be found here: https://wildfish.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/WildFish_Judicial-Review_-Judgement.pdf

  • Keith Williams
    20th September 2023

    Wildfish may find the legal decision of Lord Wensleydale in the case stated below to be of value as there is a clear Supreme Court ruling on Water Quality that can be expected by a Riparian Owner.
    Can it be researched and if of use, highlight it, there must be a civil litigation value for damage toall fisheries by the water Companies on a Region by Region basis

    Chasemore v Richards: HL 27 Jul 1859
    The House was asked whether an owner of land had a right to sink a well upon his own premises, and thereby abstract the subterranean water percolating through his own soil, which would otherwise, by the natural force of gravity, have found its way into springs which fed the River Wandle, the flow of which the plaintiff in that action had enjoyed for upwards of sixty years.
    Held: Lord Wensleydale said that: ‘it has been now settled that the rights to the enjoyment of a natural stream of water on the surface, ex jure naturae, belongs to the proprietor of the adjoining lands, as a natural incident to the right to the soil itself, and that he is entitled to the benefit of it, as he is to all the other natural advantages belonging to the land of which he is the owner. He has the right to have it come to him in its natural state, in flow, quantity, and quality, and to go from him without obstruction;

  • Geoff Roberts
    28th September 2023

    I fear that you are leading your supporters down a path that can only lead to disappointment. The reality is that these discharges cannot be stopped ‘immediately’ as the engineering works necessary to deliver compliance will take years (regardless of thecost arguments).
    Is it perhaps time to get off the soapbox and to work constructively with the water companies to develop a plan that delivers the greates benefits soonest?

  • user1_immy
    5th October 2023

    We fully recognise the engineering realities of fixing the problem but it is important the work to end the illegal discharges starts now. We have been waiting since 1994 for the law to be applied. We will work constructively with water companies, the regulators and the Government to deliver the outcome these existing regulations demand.

  • Laird Edward Steele-Wilson
    28th September 2023

    Hello Nick,
    It was a disappointment that Wildfish did not secure the judgement it had hoped for. Thank you for all the hard work that the team and your good self have put in over the years to secure the enforcement of the law on sewage discharge and the ruling that water companies must foot the bill and not the end user.
    Onward and upward as they say.

  • Graham Farley
    7th November 2023

    The Urban Waste Water Legislation for sensitive bathing water in our area requires tertiary treatment as the population is over twelve thousand. The permit population figure was revised down with no substantiating data to just 10800 which at the time flyies against the Census. That permit remains in force and the EA claim headroom and continue to use outdated figures. For years the EA have claimed that hoiday traffic couldnt be taken into account but that is contradicted by their own paperwork. The holiday traffic can nearly treble the population. The local council has given the go ahead for 350 houses and waste simply doesnt come into the planning application process.
    Its sad Wildfish did not secure the judgement but wildlife leislation isnt worth the paper its written on in my opinion.
    The OEP have highlighted EA and OFWAT failings so maybe they will be forced to do their job or UK face more fines from Europe.
    What a legacy we give to our kids.

  • Envrionmental Law News Update | Six Pump Court
    30th November 2023
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