Britain's waterways: do we need a right to connect or the right to clean rivers?
While the government rightly looks to growth, innovation and the housing that the United Kingdom desperately needs, the discussion needs to also address the fact that much of England’s water courses and wastewater infrastructure is still living in the 19th century.
he UK experienced its hottest summer to date in 2022, motivating many people to cool down using the beautiful landscapes surrounding them. However, in England, some were faced with beaches, waterways and lakes suffering polluted water.
While some people traced the pollution of rivers from agricultural use, such as nitrates from chicken farms, there is another culprit. England’s outdated and inappropriate regulation allows developers to continue to automatically connect to the significantly antiquated sewage system dating back to the Victorian era. To this day, the automatic “right to connect” remains a critical hurdle to tackling pollution in waterways, ultimately posing a significant threat to green spaces, wildlife and public health. As developers build more homes for families, this problem will only be exacerbated unless urgent action is taken now.
The automatic "right to connect" remains a critical hurdle to tackling pollution in waterways
Together with Westminster Sustainable Business Forum and Policy Connect, a not-for-profit cross-party think tank, we are concluding work on our third inquiry into flood risk management in England. The findings underpin the recommendation first contained in Sir Michael Pitt’s report following the devastating floods of 2007 to act urgently to remove the automatic “right to connect”. Instead of connecting to an outdated sewage system from the 19th century, developers must work together with Local Planning Authorities, the Environment Agency and water companies to ensure that new builds follow guidelines and regulations for long-lasting sustainability while reducing flood risk.
This can best be done by an extensive adoption of sustainable drainage systems (SuDS). SuDS reduce the risk of and damage from flooding while also improving water quality, protecting and improving the environment, ensuring the stability and durability of drainage systems and protecting health and safety. They can also provide green public spaces in the heart of developments for residents to enjoy.
The 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto introduced an ambitious housing target of building 300,000 new homes every year until the mid-2020s – putting additional strain on sewage systems and water companies. To deliver on its ambitions, I urge the government to focus attention as a matter of urgency on ensuring that surface water is not channelled into the sewage system leading to regular outflows of sewage into our rivers and lakes.
Simply removing the “right to connect” by putting SuDS and natural flood alleviation at the heart of developments will improve flood risk management and help keep our waterways clean.
As a next step, the government should implement Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 in England. This would ensure that SuDS are correctly designed, constructed, inspected and maintained; thereby leading to a more efficient sewage system, reduced flood risk, and clean water for everyone to enjoy.
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering is a Conservative peer
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