Environment

Government's new ‘nature recovery’ strategy has no target for improving river pollution

It comes after revelations about the amount of raw sewage being dumped in Britain's rivers, none of which passed pollution tests in 2020.

River with bridge and church in background.

No English river passed a test for pollution in 2020. (Image: Pixabay)

The government has not set an overall target for reducing river pollution in its new nature recovery green paper, in spite of growing public pressure over poor-quality waterways

Charities and campaign groups have reacted with dismay at the government’s proposals on rivers and waterways, with targets only set for reducing individual types of pollution rather than offering an overall target for ecological improvement. 

Dr Richard Benwell CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link said the targets “could give the impression of progress, while allowing the real-world condition of our rivers and streams to decline”.

The government’s nature recovery green paper, now open for consultation, sets out new targets and strategies for improving nature and biodiversity in the UK following Brexit.

In particular, the paper sets out how the UK plans to achieve its target of halting decline in nature by 2030, mandated in the Environment Act which passed last year.

New targets proposed in the paper cover improvements in water and air quality as well as the diversity of wildlife. Further detail on how the government will achieve its promise to designate 30 per cent of land to nature by 2030 is also outlined. 

The quality of UK rivers and waterways has been the subject of heated public debate in recent years, with testing showing that every English river failed a pollution test in 2020. 

Pollution in rivers derives from several sources, including agricultural runoff and car tyres, though raw sewage dumped into rivers by water companies is a particularly notorious contributor. 

With data showing that water companies are dumping sewage into waterways thousands of times each year, the public has exerted strong pressure on the government to act on the issue in recent months. 

The new nature recovery paper, however, sets no overall target on the condition of rivers and streams beyond 2027, when the target mandated under the EU’s Water Framework Directive expires. 

Instead the paper focuses only on sources of pollution, with one target including a reduction in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture to the water environment “by at least 40 per cent by 2037 against a 2018 baseline”. 

Benwell warned the targets “miss out major sources of pollution from water and sewage companies, depend on unreliable methods of measurement and set no ambition at all for the overall quality of our rivers”. 

His comments were echoed by Ruth Chambers from the Greener UK coalition, who said “long term targets” are needed to restore nature and clean up rivers.

“It’s hard to see [the targets] making the necessary changes at the necessary speed”, she added.

Concerns have also been raised over other proposals outlined in the paper, particularly around biodiversity targets.

The green paper has proposed an increase of species abundance of at least 10 per cent by 2042 compared to 2030 levels.

Benwell points out even if biodiversity declines at a slower rate in the eight years to 2030, an increase of 10 per cent from that point will “almost certainly mean that wildlife populations are lower in 20 years’ time than they are today”.

“We fully support the government’s world-leading target to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030, which we campaigned for in the Environment Act. 

“But the government must raise its sights on today’s proposals or fall far short of the aim of restoring our environment. We can’t afford to take 20 years to stand still on nature’s recovery,” he said.

A spokesperson for Defra said:The Water Framework Directive is enshrined in UK law. For England, this means achieving Good Ecological Status for 75% of water bodies by 2027.  

“The Water Framework Directive is enshrined in UK law. For England, this means achieving Good Ecological Status for 75% of water bodies by 2027

“It is clear this is a challenging goal, for the UK and for other comparable European states. But achieving that goal is not to be the end of the story. Once achieved, we are required to continue to maintain Good Ecological Status at that level into the future, and the River Basin Management Planning process is a key mechanism for achieving this.”

You can respond to the government’s nature recovery consultation by following this link.

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