Court sinks 'dirty rivers' ploy

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The Independent Online
The Government's attempt to redraw the boundaries of two of Britain's biggest estuaries in order to save pounds 100m in sewage clean-up costs was quashed by a High Court judge yesterday.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, had decided to move the line where the Humber and Severn estuaries become sea dozens of miles inland for the purposes of a European Union sewage directive, as revealed in the Independent on Sunday.

His move would have enabled Britain to escape its legal obligation to install an expensive level of treatment for the sewage of some one million people which is piped into these estuaries.

Local councils obtained a judicial review of Mr Gummer's decision, and yesterday Mr Justice Harrison pronounced that he was quite wrong to set new boundaries purely on the basis of cost considerations.

As a result of the judgment two water companies, Wessex and troubled Yorkshire, will have to spend about pounds 100m by 2000 installing secondary treatment on their estuary sewage works, in which bacteria digest most of the sewage.

The two had planned to install only primary treatment in which the heavier, solid material is allowed to settle out and the remaining contaminated liquid pumped into the estuary.

Most of the extra cost is likely to be passed on to their customers. Ofwat, the water industry's economic regulator, said the ruling could add up to pounds 5 a year to about three million household bills. But the city councils of Bristol and Hull were delighted by the judgment, believing it will improve the environment and the public image of their estuaries.

The EU's Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive mandates every member state to carry out secondary treatment of all sewage discharges into estuaries. But for "coastal waters", only primary treatment is needed if a government can show these are high natural dispersion areas where currents and tides rapidly dilute the effluent.

The court was told that the National Rivers Authority, the Government's water pollution watchdog, had originally suggested that the estuary boundaries should have been based on natural landmarks, salinity and a defunct 1960 Act.

But the Government, worried about the directive's implications for water bills, asked the authority to think again. The NRA then agreed to bringing the seaward boundaries inland to the Severn and Humber suspension bridges. As a result several big estuarine sewage works were left in coastal waters. The final cost saving step was to define these waters as high natural dispersion areas.

The NRA has advised the Government, on request, that it does not believe secondary treatment would bring significant gains in water cleanliness, and the extra money might be better spent on other sewage clean-up programmes. Nigel Plening QC, for the Department of the Environment, told the court investment in secondary treatment would be "a complete waste of pounds 100m".

But the judge said: "It would be quite wrong to redraw the boundaries ... in order to escape the clear requirement of the directive. The cost of providing secondary rather than primary treatment is simply not relevant." He refused the department leave to appeal but Mr Gummer may decide to ask the Court of Appeal for the right of appeal against the judgment.

Jackie Hawken, a solicitor for Bristol city council, said: "We're absolutely delighted. People are very concerned about the environment in the estuary."