Monday, March 1, 1999 Published at 15:47 GMT
Minister orders cheaper, cleaner water
The biggest programme ever: Sewage pipes should soon smell sweeter
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby
The government has told the water industry to provide cleaner water - and to charge consumers less for it.
The Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, said the improvements - which would cost about £8 bn - were to be included in company business plans for the years 2000 to 2005.
Describing the plans as "achievable", Mr Meacher said: "I think everyone is a winner".
"There will be gains in price cuts, and an enormous enhancement in water investment."
The announcement means all large sewage discharges - those serving populations of 2,000 people or more - will receive at least secondary treatment.
That means the sewage will go through a biological filtration process, using bacteria to digest organic matter.
At present only discharges serving populations of over 10,000 have to undergo secondary treatment.
They will have to deal with any harm their operations cause to sensitive wildlife sites, or to rivers with low flow rates.
Rivers and wetlands at risk of drying out which should benefit include the river Piddle in Dorset, and the Avon in Hampshire.
Damaging nutrients will be removed from areas like the Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, home to the fen raft spider, the largest spider in England.
The end of lead piping
River quality will be protected from the effects of harmful chemicals running off farmland.
And the industry will meet standards set out in the new Brussels Drinking Water Directive, including making a start on replacing lead pipes.
There was an enthusiastic welcome for Mr Meacher's announcement from the Environment Agency.
'Over the moon'
It said the programme would "banish the last vestiges of the Victorian sewage systems to the history books for ever, and at last set environmental standards fit for the 21st. century".
"We are over the moon that the government has given its wholehearted support to our ambitious programme."
But Adrian Beeby of Water UK, which represents the companies, expressed serious doubts.
He said they estimated that the improvements would cost £10 bn - £2 bn more than the government expected.
"Mr Meacher said it was too good to be true, and we think it is. We are going to have real difficlty with this."
The director general of water services, Ian Byatt, welcomed the announcement.
He said: "I am pleased that ministers have now issued clear guidance about the programme that companies must deliver."
Mr Byatt said it was his job as head of Ofwat to make sure that the water companies could finance the plans.
"I cannot say what the consequences for bills will be until I have considered their business plans."
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