Legal Challenge To Utility Immunity

Environmentalists Join Fray

11 Feb 2022 by The Water Diplomat
LONDON, United Kingdom

On the 26th of January, a consortium of interveners including the Environmental Law Foundation and the Good Law Project was given permission to intervene in a Court of Appeal sewage dumping case to be heard in March 2022.

The case was brought by the Manchester Shipping Canal Limited (MSC) against United Utilities in reference to the discharge of untreated sewage into the Manchester ship canal.

An earlier judgement of the High Court in this case had ruled in favour of United Utilities. The judge confirmed that the Water Industry Act of 1991 effectively gives United Utilities the right to discharge untreated sewage into waterways in circumstances of high rainfall or storms when United Utilities’ infrastructure might be unable to cope.  In the case, United Utilities had also sought and had been granted protection from private legal action, arguing that this was a matter for the regulator.

However, MSC was permitted to appeal the case, prompting intervention from legal activists. The case is seen as important against the background of data released by the Environmental Agency during 2021 showing that there were 403,171 spills of sewage in England over 2020 which lasted a total of 3.1 million hours.

Of these, United Utilities was responsible for 726,450 hours of sewage discharge into rivers.  The public debate and petition in response to the news on discharges led to the Duke of Wellington submitting an amendment to the Environment Bill, in terms of which utilities would be given a legal duty to demonstrate a progressive reduction in sewage discharges from storm overflows over the next five years. 

In mid-October 2021, 22 conservative members of parliament rebelled against the government to vote in favour of the amendment to the environment bill.        

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