Water pollution targets are due to be weakened by the government next week, the Guardian can reveal, as Environment Act targets will give farmers an extra three years to reduce the dumping of their waste into the watercourse.
River activists said the news was proof the government had not given up on its “attack on nature”.
Therese Coffey has worked to publish the legally binding targets mandated by the Environment Act 2021, which gave the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) until October 2022 to set ambitious targets on air and water pollution and on biodiversity.
In the law, the government gave itself a legally binding deadline of October 31, 2022 to deliver “ambitious” targets for air, water and biodiversity protection. The environment secretary is set to announce the targets at the end of next week, but ambition for river pollution is expected to be weakened.
Despite demands from water activists, there will be no overall goal for river health.
It was also originally proposed that the agricultural sector would reduce pollution in waterways by 40% by 2037. This target, according to leaked plans seen by the Guardian, has been pushed back to 2040.
Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat Environment Critic, said: “This is an outrage. Children are getting sick swimming in their local rivers while otters and fish live in filth, all because the government keeps kicking the streets. Tory MPs refused to ban sewage discharges last year when there was a vote in parliament, but now they must surely develop some backbone by rebelling against it.
“Any watering down of these targets would be a betrayal of the public and the environment. Ministers just don’t get it. In my view, failing to set targets for the health of rivers during a sewage crisis could be an offence. of resignation. I hope the environment secretary thinks twice about it”
James Wallace, chief executive of campaign group River Action, said: “Agriculture is the biggest polluter of our rivers. We had hoped that the new Secretary of State, Thérèse Coffey, would put an end to the attack on nature unleashed by her predecessor. Instead, his first decision is to extend the deadline for relentless agricultural pollution to 18 years, demonstrating once again that this government does not care about the urgency of water and nature. The politically salient strategy would certainly be to boost investment in environmental regulators and toughen industry targets to clean up our rivers.
These targets gave the new Secretary of State a hard time. Dame Glenys Stacey, chairwoman of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), previously told Coffey that the possibility of taking formal enforcement action against the government for several missed targets was under active consideration. The OEP can open an investigation and take legal action if it deems it necessary.
Environmental charities including the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust have also filed a complaint with OEP and Defra for failing to set new legally binding targets for air quality, health water, nature and waste management on time.
The government has caused widespread anger over its failure to tackle sewage and agricultural pollution, after cuts to farm inspections and an approach by polluting water companies described by critics as soft. Ministers were also forced to backtrack on sewage pollution after initially forcing MPs to vote against a law to stop water companies dumping sewage. They then presented their own amendment which promised to act in the sewage scandal.
Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said: ‘Only two months into work, Therese Coffey has already exceeded her own government’s legal deadline to publish environmental targets, told parliament that Meeting wastewater polluters isn’t a priority and now it looks like she’s watering down and delaying water pollution control measures.
“Coffey’s first spell as Defra minister was a monumental sewage spill. It’s clear that Dr. Dolittle is back to finish the job of polluting our environment. Labor has a plan to clean up the Tories’ sewage scandal. We will introduce mandatory monitoring with automatic fines, hold water bosses personally responsible for wastewater pollution and give regulators the power to properly enforce the rules.
A Defra spokesman said nothing would be confirmed until the targets were released.
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