Water quality is 'top priority', Minister says, amid growing pressure over pollution crisis

Tackling river pollution is a “top priority”, a government minister told ITV Central - insisting they're working with farmers and water companies to try to stop dangerous chemicals getting into the waterways.

It comes four months after ITV Central began investigating the scale of the problem across the region. Until now, both Defra and the Environment Agency have avoided being interviewed about what action they're taking. 

But our Environment Correspondent Charlotte Cross managed to catch up with them, at last, today.

  • Video report:

Walking along the River Seven, just south of Worcester city centre, we film as unfiltered sewage gushes into the water.

A visible scum forms on the surface and drifts downstream, adding yet more pollution to an already struggling waterway.

Angler Glyn Marshall, chairman of the Worcester Angling Society and coordinator for the Severn Fisheries Group, tells us he fears for the future of Britain’s longest river. 

“The water is filthy,” he says, “and it’s just getting worse.”

We first met Glyn back in April, as part of ITV Central’s investigation into phosphate pollution in rivers across the Midlands.

Since then, inspired and outraged by our findings, he bought his own phosphate measuring kit to carry out weekly monitoring of both the Severn and the Teme.

Angler Glyn Marshall has been testing the water on the River Severn Credit: ITV Central

He carries out a test for our cameras. Safe levels should be around 0.03ppm - with 0.05ppm considered the maximum before it starts to cause environmental damage. 

The results are 0.72ppm.

“I’m more than shocked, I’m absolutely flabbergasted that in an area like Worcester, where we’ve got the longest river in the country, we’ve got a feeder river like the Teme, that phosphate levels are just too high. And they’re killing the river,” he says.

“What’s going on? What’s being done about this?”

Two very good questions - and ones we’ve tried to ask of the government department responsible, Defra, as well as the Environment Agency, for the past four months.

Each time, they’ve declined to be interviewed, sending statements instead.

So when we heard both parties would be in the region to promote the latest round of flood defence spending, we seized the opportunity.

The results of our phosphate testing on the River Severn Credit: ITV Central

“Fewer than 15% of rivers in the UK are classed as ‘good ecological status’ - what is the government doing about that problem?” I asked of Environment Minister Rebecca Pow.

“We’re taking this extremely seriously and I’m particularly taking it very seriously as Environment Minister,” she said. 

“So we’ve already launched a range of measures to tackle this, one of which is that I set up the Storm Overflows Taskforce, which deals with sewage overflows being far too frequently emitting into rivers and that’s working and coming up with its recommendations very shortly. 

“We’ve already flagged that water companies need to do more monitoring and gathering the data at these outflows, so that we can actually see what’s happening and keep better enforcement of that.

“And we’ve bringing through measures in the Environment Bill which will require all water companies to produce sewage management plans in future.

“They will also have to come up with a plan to show us what’s happening in terms of the overflows and that will have to be presented to government and we’ll have to produce an annual report on this.

“So we are moving at pace because we take it very seriously.”

  • Full interview with Environment Minister Rebecca Pow:

She went on to outline other measures:

- Working with the agricultural industry, including looking at grants for slurry and covers, and land management techniques

- Working with water companies to spend billions of pounds on improving infrastructure

- Working with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government 

- Hundreds more inspectors for the Environment Agency 

I also spoke to Environment Agency operations manager Anthony Perry, challenging him on the organisation’s performance over the years - considering the state of rivers now - as well as action against companies like Severn Trent, who last year opened storm drains for more than 550,000 hours.

That equates to 64 years worth of raw sewage being poured into rivers across their catchment area.

“Water quality across the UK has been improving, in places,” he said.

“And it’s a job we take very very seriously around our regulatory role, and we do take offenders to task, we have prosecuted water companies, and we continue to do our regulation role.”

He went on to say that a "balance" needed to be struck with companies such as Severn Trent, who he said had put forward an investment plan to look at water quality.

  • Full interview with Environment Agency operations manager Anthony Perry:

As for the official reason for their visit, Ms Pow said she was “very excited” to be able to announce the investment - which is genuinely good news for Bewdley, and other communities along the Severn, which has suffered many, many floods over the years.

The government will be spending £6.2m replacing the temporary flood defences which go up on Beales Corner, helping to protect 31 houses and around 150 businesses which have suffered flooding in the past.

It’s part of £20m being invested along the Severn Valley and catchment areas, and £5.2bn being spent to tackle flooding across the country.

And what’s more, Mr Perry told us part of that investment would go towards improving water quality as well.

“Part of the measures that will be carried out is that they’re going to look at the whole catchment-wide approach to managing water run-off,” he said.

“And I think as part of that partnership, there will be a whole host of measures that can be carried out that will reduce pollution and improve water quality on the Severn.

“So I think it’s a positive news story, not just from flooding, but also around how these measures can improve water quality going forward.”

But for campaigners like Glyn, the concern is that the money is earmarked to be spent between now and 2027.

He believes action is needed much sooner than that.

“It’s just words - it sounds like hot air,” he says.

“We need more than people at the top of the tree saying the things they think we want to hear. They need to come down to the river, speak to real people, speak to anglers who know the river, and see the problems up close.

“Something needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. Or we’ll lose the battle to save the river.”

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