Research shows Victorian sewers are not responsible for pollution in England

The Victorian sewage system in England and Wales is less than 12 percent of its current size. This undermines the claims of the water industry that the outflows and stormwater are due to the antiquated Victorian infrastructure.

According to data analyzed by the consultancy Arup and the campaigners Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, the majority of the network had been built before privatisation. Approximately a fifth was constructed in the 1960s and 70s.

Professor Peter Hammond of Wasp, a data researcher and former professor at University College London in computational biology, said that the findings disproved the claims made by water companies and the government, claiming the Victorian waste water network was to blame for sewage overflows.

Hammond has testified at a number of parliamentary water hearings.

He added that “the disparity in infrastructure investment prior to and after privatisation must be the main culprit.”

The analysis counters the argument made often by the water industry, and the government that privatised water companies release raw sewage in coastal waters and rivers as a result infrastructurethat were built during the Victorian era which ended in 1901.

In April Therese Coffy, secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stated: “Sewage Overflows are a result of our Victorian infrastructure”.

The trade association Water UK said that in July 20,23 it is committed to speeding up the pace of improvements, including a overhaul our Victorian sewage systems to transform our rivers, and seas.

Hammond’s study found that Victorian sewer systems were not more likely to spill untreated sewage. He said that it was more likely the result of a lack of investment and maintenance.

The regulator Ofwat has revealed that the investment in sewage infrastructure is down while the population is growing. The real-term spending on wastewater infrastructure, including pipes, has dropped from £3bn per year in 1990s to £2.7bn so far in 2020s despite an increase of 16 percent in population over the last two decades.

This results in a sewerage network that is often overloaded, and raw effluent is discharged via the 16,563 combined sewer-overflow pipes. These are only designed to operate during heavy rain periods.

Dieter Helm is a professor at Oxford University and said that water companies, regulators, and politicians should “stop blaming what Victorians did over a century-and-a-half ago”.

He said that the data showed there had been insufficient capital maintenance, and that companies were not kept up to date. “We need a new Victorian mentality — and we must urgently invest now.”

Water companies, which were privatised in 1989 without any debt and received a £1.5bn handout from the government to improve their network, had increased £60bn of borrowing and paid more than £70bn as dividends by March 2022, while also presiding over pollution and leakages, including undetermined quantities, with untreated sewage flowing into rivers and coastal waters.

In the summer of this year, beaches and rivers were closed for swimming. Last week, at least 57 individuals fell ill after an event on Roker Beach near Sunderland. The UK Health Security Agency confirmed that they are investigating the possibility of sewage being to blame.

A study conducted by Imperial College London in this year revealed that the main problem is insufficient capacity of wastewater treatment plants. This means they release sewage even during dry seasons.

Quantity of raw sewage entering rivers and coastal waters is unknown. The government has mandated that all combined sewers overflows be equipped with monitors to record discharges before the end of the year. However, these monitors only record when the discharge occurs and not how much is released.

Water UK stated: “England’s older combined sewers have 100,000 km and more than 15,000 overflows. This combined sewer dates back to Victorian times. “Companies have admitted that they haven’t done nearly enough to upgrade this portion of the network, but propose to spend more than £10bn in order to fix it.”

Defra stated: “We have no doubt that water companies need to do more for their customers and the environment.”

Ofwat has declined to comment.