A collective effort is needed as a national crisis looms
Drainage expert and Motion Consultant, Richard Bettridge, sets out why urgent investment in infrastructure is the key to unlocking new homes and protecting the local environment.
The most recent headlines reveal yet another dimension to the ongoing dispute about the responsibilities of water companies and the discharge of sewage into local watercourses. The six largest water utilities in the UK prepare for potential legal action, in the latest twists and turns of a most egregious saga. And the stakes are becoming ever higher as water bill payers are now brought into the fray.
But despite the media interest, public disquiet and celebrity involvement, there does not appear to be any urgency to this debate. To overcome the current challenges, a shift of seismic proportions is likely to be required: in the rapid prioritisation of finance and capital to upgrade or replace ageing infrastructure, the recognition of the critical role of engineering knowhow, and the acknowledgement that a collaborative approach must be a given if public trust and confidence is to be restored, and frictionless infrastructure development is to be achieved to facilitate the building of tomorrow’s sustainable private and public property.
The following is a ten-point action plan for tackling the problem:
- The lack of conveyance capacity in sewer systems means that separation schemes should be considered where practicable, splitting sewage from surface-water drainage infrastructure.
- Surface-water connections into foul sewers are already outlawed, but enforcement is necessary, along with the power to undo connections retrospectively where there is a history of problems. This will act as both a powerful guardrail and effective deterrent.
- Sites where sewer overflows are common need to be identified and reinforced with additional storage capacity near the spillage, for pumping back effluent later for full treatment, once the initial event has passed.
- The lack of treatment capacity, a major hurdle for many new development proposals, could also be overcome by expanding settlement tanks and biological treatment at the works. Primary and secondary treatment should be reviewed and additional infrastructure introduced for tertiary treatment – screens, micro strainers and aeration, for example. This could mean targets for new homes are more likely to be met, year on year.
- A dual approach, increasing treatment capacity AND overflow storage capacity, could either radically reduce or eliminate raw sewage spills.
- The water industry has a responsibility to communicate more effectively with the public and a proper debate needs to take place about the tensions between protecting private property and local watercourses.
- Water companies face damage to reputation mainly because standards as well as stakeholder expectations have been raised. Through public information campaigns, consumers need to understand why and how sewage spills occur. Households should be aware of the need to safeguard the efficacy of the biological treatment ecosystem which depends on a thriving population of bacteria. Domestic cleaning products, medicines and drugs entering the sewerage system all work against this delicately balanced biological process.
- Civil and environmental engineers and public health professionals need to unite and mobilise to help deal with this crisis which, unchecked, is only likely to deepen with the mounting impact of climate change. Water companies need the support of these players. Without them, the risk is that utilities will always be playing catch up, even in the absence of extreme weather events.
- Planning decisions aimed at protecting our rivers and watercourses should be fast-tracked. Problem sites need to be quickly identified and feasibility schemes drawn up to support funding applications.
- To achieve this plan, an injection of government finance would be required. Water company fines, issued with immediate effect, would limit the payment of what seem like excessive dividends to shareholders. These fines could also contribute to the funding of new schemes.
For successful delivery, capital investment and access to land are also urgently required. But to be in with a chance of bringing about change for good, above all this problem needs to be elevated to the status of national emergency.
Motion’s infrastructure design team provides pragmatic advice to help a wide range of clients manage the complex interrelation of property development, drainage and flood risk. Call 01483 531300 to speak to an expert.