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Water Quality in Rivers inquiry launched

8 December 2020

The Environmental Audit Committee previously inquired into nitrate pollution so this inquiry intends to focus on the water industry and urban diffuse pollution.


Water quality has implications across the whole ecological system, but pollution remains a major problem threatening the health of plant life and fish, and the human population who rely on our rivers for water and recreation.

Last year, the Government admitted that only 16% of English rivers met good ecological status. Sewage is estimated to account for 55% of the rivers that are failing to reach this status.

Agricultural runoff, plastic, highways and urban runoff pollution

It is not just sewage discharge that is contributing to the concerning pollution of rivers. Agricultural runoff, plastic pollution, highways and urban runoff are also significant contributors.

However, the scale of the problem is largely unknown as some pollution is not monitored – such as that from highways. The Committee considered agricultural runoff pollution in its inquiry ‘UK Progress on Reducing Nitrate Pollution’ in 2018, so this inquiry is focussed on other principal elements polluting our waterways.

Water companies

As has been widely reported in news media, water companies are routinely falling behind on their responsibility to get a grip on water pollution. Despite significant capital investment by the water companies in making environmental improvements, the Government has stated that progress has flat-lined in recent years.

The Environment Agency has said that at the current rate, it will take over 200 years to reach the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan target of 75% of waters to be close to their natural state.

Chair's comments

Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said:

“This year, people around the country have been enjoying the pleasures of outdoor swimming. But unfortunately many wild swimmers may not realise quite what risks they could be taking from some very unpleasant pollutants. With unacceptable levels of water pollution coursing through our rivers, the impact to human health, and the ability for precious ecosystems to thrive, are growing causes of concern.

“Despite numerous scathing reports that our water companies are routinely discharging untreated sewage legally into our rivers, we are yet to see any system-wide improvement in river quality. Our new inquiry will be considering how water quality can be improved, how we can push the incidence of water pollution right down and what – if any – changes to monitoring, transparency, enforcement and government guidance to regulators are needed.”

Terms of reference

The Committee is inviting written submissions on the below areas:

  • What are the best indicators for river water quality that could be used as targets being developed under the Environment Bill?
  • How could drainage and sewage management plans, introduced by the Environment Bill, play a role in reduced sewer discharges?
  • How adequate are the monitoring and reporting requirements around water company discharges? How can technology improve and assist with transparency and enforcement?
  • What is the impact of plastic pollution and other materials on drainage and water quality in rivers and what should be done to mitigate it?
  • How can consumers be persuaded to change their behaviour to minimise pollution?
  • What is the required investment level needed to minimise storm overflows vs the scope for sustainable drainage and nature-based solutions?
  • How effective are the planning policy and standards around sustainable drainage systems to reduce urban diffuse pollution in England?
  • Should local authorities and highways agencies be given a duty to prevent pollution to watercourses without prior treatment?
  • How effective is Ofwat’s remit and regulation of water companies? Does it facilitate sufficient investment in improvements to treat water quality, including sustainable drainage system outflows and nature-based solutions such as constructed wetlands?
  • Is adequate investment being made in adapting water treatment systems to future climate change?
  • How could the designation of inland bathing waters by water companies affect the costs of achieving the associated water quality standards?

Further information

Image: Philip Dunne