It promised to propose a “very similar” amendment when the Environment Bill returns to the House of Commons.
The Lord’s amendment—which places legal obligations on water companies to stop polluting England’s waterways during heavy rainfall—was previously rejected in the Commons on Oct. 20, as the government whipped Conservative MPs against it, drawing intense backlash on social media.
On Tuesday, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the Environment Bill “will be further strengthened with an amendment that will see a duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government had already published a strategy for water service regulator Ofwat “mandating them to progressively reduce the discharge of sewage from storm overflows in the next pricing review,” but decided to “put that commitment on a statutory footing with a new clause” after hearing the debates in Parliament.
Just hours before Defra’s announcement, Downing Street defended the government’s opposition to the Lord’s amendment, which was proposed by Charles Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, calling the proposal “a blank cheque.”
“We completely agree the current failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges is unacceptable,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said.
The spokesman said Wellesley’s proposal—which involved an upgrade of the UK’s Victorian sewerage system—would cost over £150 billion ($206 billion), according to initial assessments.
“That would mean that individuals— every one of us taxpayers—paying potentially thousands of pounds each as a result,” he said.
“So it’s not right to sign a blank cheque on behalf of customers without understanding the trade-offs and the bills that would be involved,” the spokesman said.
Speaking to broadcasters, Eustice said the government’s proposed change to the Environment Bill will still result in rising household water bills.
“We’ve been very clear that we want to see a reduction in these storm overflows over the next five-year period of the water pricing plan,” the environment secretary said.
“That will need to be funded and will lead to some increases in water bills to fund that.”
Sewage can be pumped out of the sewerage system and into rivers through combined sewer overflows—otherwise known as a storm overflow or release valve. The overflows are designed to release excess water following heavy rain or a storm to stop sewage backing up into homes.
To stop this from happening, water companies are allowed to release the rainwater and a smaller amount of untreated sewage, into the country’s waterways.
The Environment Agency has reported that, in the last year, raw sewage was discharged into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times, which Defra has branded “unacceptable.”
Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Luke Pollard, said Defra had been forced into the change due to public outcry rather than out of care for the environment.
The Liberal Democrat spokesperson for rural affairs, Tim Farron, said Tory MPs “owe their constituents an apology” after defending the decision to block the original amendment.
PA contributed to this report.