England's rivers and lakes suffer from a toxic chemical cocktail of pollutants, with only 16 per cent in good condition. Once the countryside's arteries, our waters are now too often inhospitable places for wildlife and people alike. No quick fixes exist to solve this problem; upgrading our crumbling Victorian sewerage infrastructure and switching to sustainable farming practices will take time.
But with the right government policies, many private enterprises - beyond the obvious demands on water companies and farming businesses to end polluting practices - can help speed up our efforts to tackle pollution. That's why the manifesto published by over 40 Conservative Environment Network (CEN) parliamentarians with six headline policies to clean up England's rivers, seas and waterways included ideas recognising the important role businesses have to play in delivering healthier waterways.
We cannot hope to solve this problem without businesses. While the £56bn of water company investment that has been mobilised through the Discharge Reduction Plan will help to get us so far, we need wider private sector action to turn the tide. This will help to ensure that other factors contributing to storm overflow usage and water pollution are being solved alongside the promised upgrades to our sewerage infrastructure. Tackling these other sources of pollution is where we'll need businesses to act.
Businesses need to help ease the pressure of England's crumbling sewers. One of the quickest ways to do this is to tackle blockages and so-called ‘fatbergs'. Blockages reduce the capacity of sewers, leading to more storm overflow usage when the system can't cope with rainwater. Businesses are partly responsible for these problems, from restaurants and takeaways incorrectly disposing of fat, oils and grease and manufacturers not clearly labelling their single-use and plastic products as 'unflushable'.
We need a mandatory labelling system to indicate what people can and cannot flush down the toilet. In the absence of government action to create one, businesses must voluntarily inform their customers about flushability in a clear and transparent way. This action is needed to reduce the flow of common fatberg culprits like wet wipes, sanitary products, nappies, and cotton wool into our sewers, which consumers often think are flushable and unaware that biodegradable isn't the same thing.
Businesses also need to ensure they follow the rules set out in the Water Industry Act that make disposing of fat, oils and grease incorrectly a criminal offence. Too many businesses are unaware of this regulation. The government must improve the enforcement of this law. This isn't an imposition on private enterprises but in their interests. There are over 300,000 blockages a year, costing households and businesses £100m a year through their water bills to clear. Blocked sewers also contribute to flooding, which costs the £1.4bn a year in damages.
Private investment can help solve the current nutrient neutrality challenge too, which is blocking businesses, farmers, and developers from new activities. This policy is designed to protect sites in poor condition from damaging developments. But it doesn't encourage existing polluters responsible for most of the environmental harm to change. Instead, it blocks new developments, including business activity and, notably, housebuilding, with 120,000 new homes delayed.
Instead of scrapping the policy entirely, the government can embrace a market-based solution that allows private enterprises, including businesses and developers, to trade credits to pay for improvements. This will unlock investment for wetlands which remove polluting nutrients. Natural England is already developing a strategic offset scheme for several areas, and pilot nutrient trading schemes in the Solent and Somerset Broads and Levels. The government should go nationwide with this solution that offers a route to new development while tackling pollution at the catchment level.
None of these are silver bullets to England's rivers crisis, but they will certainly take us a step closer to healthier rivers. Alongside other solutions called for by CEN's Parliamentary Caucus, including creating more designated inland bathing waters and paying farmers to restore rivers and reduce pollution from agricultural runoff through subsidy reform, they will complement the government's £56bn storm overflow reduction plan.
Ministers have already adopted two of the policy recommendations outlined in the CEN manifesto. Fines raised against illegally polluting water firms will be ring-fenced for environmental improvements, ensuring that polluters pay to fix the damage they caused. Ministers have also launched a consultation on requiring all new homes to have sustainable drainage systems to ensure development doesn't lead to more storm overflow usage.
Voters expect the government to have an answer on this issue. This Conservative government has a strong record, with tougher fines, investment to tackle storm overflows and bold plans to pay farmers to tackle pollution. But expect to see more announcements in the coming months as ministers are aware of the large-scale public concern for the health of our rivers. I hope ministers will consider these three steps that will get many more businesses on board with their efforts to clean England's rivers and lakes.
First published by BusinessGreen. Kitty Thompson is CEN's Nature Programme Manager.