The sewage scandal

The sewage scandal is – rightly – an election issue. The rivers and lakes of our great National Park should be at the top of the clean up list.

From Ed Davey falling into Windermere, Keir Starmer talking about childhood holidays in the Lakes and Rishi Sunak apologising in Devon, sewage is an issue that’s rightly on the election agenda. In key constituencies, the state of our waterways could be a deciding factor.  

As Save Windermere campaigner Matt Staniek points out, a combination of illegal and lawful water company sewage spills, is killing freshwater ecosystems.  

From the Lake District, to the chalk streams of the South Downs, and the wetlands of the Broads, the waterways of the National Parks are iconic. They are the lifeblood of landscapes that remain as important today as when the National Parks were created 75 years ago.   

The Campaign for National Parks Health Check, released earlier this year, found just 6% of National Park land is effectively managed for nature. Just 5 of the 880 water bodies in the English Parks met the highest ecological standards. Every single river and lake contained toxic chemicals. Every year it gets worse: the proportion of rivers in good ecological health dropped from 47% to 39% over the last decade. 

Sewage was one of the main reasons for failure. In a single year, raw sewage flowed into National Parks for 176,818 hours. United Utilities, South West Water, Southern Water and Dwr Cymru were responsible for the most damaging discharges. Alongside the Lake District, Dartmoor, Eryri (Snowdonia) and the South Downs had the most spills. Why? The sewage works are not fit for purpose. While the resident population in the 10 English Parks is around 320,000, there are 90,000,000 visitors each year. There is a final perverse twist: many sewage works in National Parks are designed to much weaker standards than urban equivalents, not required to use secondary or advanced treatments – so in the National Parks, even legal ‘treated’ outfalls are damaging.  

For too long, water regulators and the water companies and have largely ignored National Park status. It’s about time that this international designation was taken seriously. A new law, that came into force in December 2023, requires water companies and regulators to do just this. But unless there is proper action and enforcement, there is a risk that this becomes just another paper protection. That’s why we’re calling on all parties to put National Parks – and their beautiful waterways – high on their election agenda. Show your support by adding your name to our petition.

Whoever leads the next Government, they must make the lakes and rivers of National Parks a priority. If we can’t clean up the rivers and lakes here, then where?