Pollution warnings were put in place at more than 40 beaches across England and Wales last week as untreated sewage was released into the sea.
This led to renewed criticism of MPs for voting down an amendment aimed to stop sewage overflows dumping into waterways and seas.
The issue was contrasted by many people with the situation in Scotland, where drinking water and sewerage is publicly owned.
Ferret Fact Service looked into these claims and found them False.
The water system in England and Wales has been privatised since 1989. This means that water and sewage is dealt with by a number of different regional limited companies, who are regulated by government body, Ofwat. However, Welsh water services are now run by a single not-for-profit company.
Scotland’s system is different, with services provided by Scottish Water, a publicly-owned company that is answerable to Scottish ministers.
It was set up in 2002 after the Water Industry (Scotland) Act combined the previous regional authorities into a national statutory corporation, as Scotland’s water was not privatised in 1989.
What was the situation in England and Wales?
The sewage overflows at beaches in England and Wales were caused by heavy rain which overwhelmed the sewage system.
There are thousands of combined sewage overflows across the UK, which are intended as an emergency protection when the sewage system is being overrun.
When rain is heavy, it can overwhelm the sewerage system, and without combined sewage overflows sewage could become backed up and flood people’s homes, streets and public spaces. Instead, combined sewage overflows are used, which operate effectively as valves to divert waste water and untreated sewage and stop it from blocking the system.
These overflows took place into rivers and seas 375,000 times in England last year.
Does it happen in Scotland?
Sewage overflows are considered a necessary part of the sewage system at present, and regularly take place in Scotland as well.
However, sewage overflows are not monitored as comprehensively in Scotland as in England, according to an expert briefing revealed by The Ferret in 2021.
In the briefing, David Lister, the Scottish Government’s water environment policy manager, said ten per cent of combined sewage overflows are monitored in Scotland, while 80 per cent are monitored in England. The briefing admitted that Scotland was “way behind England” in monitoring sewage overflows.
A freedom of information request by The Ferret found 12,238 overflows recorded by Scottish Water in 2020. But the lack of monitoring means that current figures for sewage overflows in Scotland are likely to be significantly understated.
Beaches in Scotland have been rated ‘poor’ by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) after sewage discharges on a number of occasions. The Ferret reported that as many as 30 were polluted in breach of sewage safety limits in 2020, with sewer overflows at least partly to blame.
Is Scotland’s water cleaner than England?
Comparisons between Scotland and England’s water have been made online after a chart was posted by the Financial Times comparing water cleanliness in the two countries.
The Financial Times chart was originally published in 2019, using information from the European Environment Agency.
It measures water by area, finding only six per cent of Scotland’s water is failing to achieve good ecological status. This is better than all the areas of England and Wales. However, it is based on reporting from member countries in 2015.
The latest draft Scottish reports from 2021 show improvement in overall water quality.
What did MPs vote for?
The Environment Act 2021 was voted through by MPs in 2021. During its passage through parliament, an amendment was added in the House of Lords which would place a legal duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage overflows into rivers.
This amendment was voted down by 265 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons, with 22 rebelling.
This was criticised by environmental groups including Surfers Against Sewage and the Greener UK coalition, while Tory MPs argued the plan was not costed and would require an overhaul of the whole sewerage system.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: False
While Scotland’s water quality is considered to be higher than England’s, it is not accurate to say Scotland doesn’t have a problem with sewage being pumped into waterways and seas.
Sewage overflows happen regularly in Scotland as well, and numbers of overflows are likely to be significantly underreported as Scotland does not monitor the majority of its overflow points.
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Photo credit: iStock/Chatchai Limjareon