Rebecca Pow, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Environmental Quality & Resilience) for the UK Government delivered a Ministerial Address at the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit focused on enhancing our water environment and delivering DEFRA’s key priorities. 

Watch the ministerial speech or read the full transcript below: 

I’m very delighted to be here to speak at this event, and I just first of all wanted to start by thanking the organisers rethink, and everybody who has been involved in getting this event together.

I gather that they’ve had a greater turnout than ever before, which I think really signals how important this issue now is. And actually, I’ve arrived early enough to have a look around some of the stands, which is pretty inspirational, I think we all agree. I’ve seen everything from sewage blocker detectors, to leakage spotters to flood mapping schemes so there’s all kinds of tech going on here that link into this space.

Water is one of the central planks of my role as the Minister for Environmental Quality & Resilience at Defra and the more I have been involved in this space – about three years now – the more I realise how complicated this landscape is, which I am sure you are all fully aware of, and the more it becomes apparent the need for all of these strands of this enormous water landscape to come together.

I am delighted to be talk to you today about our ambition in our government for protecting and enhancing the nation’s water environment.

Even in the UK, (where of course you are aware it does normally rain a lot), we are not immune to the impacts of climate change, and that brings with it on the one hand floods and on the other hand drought and we actually had drought, quite severe drought this summer in most parts of the country. Then you’ve got the impacts of the growing population, with increasing demand – all of these things impacts both on our water supply and pollution.

So it is a really complicated space but Defra is absolutely committed to delivering clean and plentiful water to everyone. And I was noting the comments on that previous panel about water, that is something we put into out terminology to deliver clean water. And of course it has been pointed out that water is absolutely critical to our very existence. Our health depends on it and the health of the planet depends on it and it is precious. And that is why exploring opportunities for innovation, to protect our lakes, our rivers, our coastlines and to create a sustainable resource for future generations is so important and why I think this event is so timely and so significant because tech and creative solutions are already used and will be increasingly needed to play a growing part for forming the issues related to water.

I am going to outline some of the key areas that relate to our water policy and I think that it will become clear that we will need to harness these opportunities, to harness tech and so forth, in order to get to where we actually need to be.

Five years ago, we published our 25 Year Environment Plan, setting out our vision to help the natural world regain and retain its good health.

Since then, that laid the foundation stones, to set us on a sustainable trajectory for the future. That includes passing our landmark Environment Act 2021, that I was proud to steer through our parliament. That was a huge piece of legislation which really set the agenda on water for us as well as other things restoring natural habitats, increasing biodiversity, reducing waste and making better use of our resources.

A year ago we also published our Strategic Policy Statement for Ofwat, the water regulator, and that clearly sets out our priorities for them and water companies to enhance water quality and deliver a resilient and sustainable water supply. The Statement promotes efficient investment, ensuring it is made in a way that secures long-term resilience and protects and enhances the environment, whilst delivering value for money for customers and society in the long-term because we always have to remember of course cost to the consumer paying their water bills. That is something we always have to factor in.

For the next price review period, 2025-2030, we expect water companies and regulators to be outcome-focused, innovative and integrate actions across catchments, working in partnership with other organisations.

We want to see water companies significantly increase their use of nature and catchment-based solutions to achieve multiple benefits for the environment. We expect companies and regulators to work towards delivering these solutions.

Our ambitions require significant investment in infrastructure, and investment by the water industry should be maximised through co-funding with other sectors and green finance opportunities.

That’s what I can see where lots of the showcases here today under discussion, opportunities which we do encourage people to take.

We have already seen some exciting innovations in this area. For example, EnTrade’s first project in the Poole Harbour catchment, in the south of England, incentivised farmers to grow winter crops on their fields to reduce nitrates leaching into the ground. Because of course our farming industry has a significant impact on what happens to water with the runoff and so forth coming from what they put onto the land. This was a pilot project that was launched and it was as an alternative to Wessex Water investing £6 million in a new treatment plant. The results have been really exciting. This removed 40 tonnes of nitrogen from the ecosystem per annum between 2015-2020, when the project was running, and that substantially reduced carbon emissions compared to a new treatment plant, and that generated valuable new revenue opportunities for the farmers involved and delivered a 30% saving on compliance costs to Wessex Water. Is there anyone from WW in the audience? They could be taking the credit for this. This project is ongoing and is looking to save 100 tonnes of nitrogen per annum between 2020-2025.

Cleaning up our water sources is a top priority. The issue of the far too frequent use of emergency storm sewage overflows is totally unacceptable and quite rightly the public are not happy with this. If you have been following the British press you will have probably heard a great deal about sewage in water. I actually feel I have been somewhat immersed in sewage for a long time.

But we are tackling this as a government. Storm sewage overflows, as many of you will know, were originally here created in the Victorian times and they act as relief valves when the sewerage system is at risk of being overwhelmed, for example during extreme rain when a lot of rainwater runs into drains and the sewerage system in a very short space of time.

They were designed to prevent sewage from flooding or even backing up into people’s homes, coming up from the loos – this is not pleasant – by releasing the extra rainwater and wastewater into rivers or seas.

But through improved storm overflow monitoring, which the government has been responsible for, it has come to light that these storm overflows are being used far too frequently.

Last summer, we produced our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which requires water companies to secure the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – a significant £56 billion capital investment over the next 25 years to tackle this issue.

Under the Plan, water companies will have to achieve targets which will mean discharges can only happen if there is unusually heavy rain, and if there is no adverse impact on the local environment. And of course we know we are getting more of these extreme weather events because of climate change.

By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm sewage overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water; and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high-priority nature sites.

By 2050, all remaining storm sewage overflows covered by our targets will also have to meet the new requirements on rainfall and environmental impact, regardless of location. So, I think already you can see because of these measures we are putting in place much infrastructure will be required and much technology needed.

We will review this plan in 2027 to consider where we can go further, and I’d actually welcome all of your ideas on how we can develop innovation and efficiencies around our large infrastructural needs while of course managing that all important impacts on bills.

Now, we are building on our vision with our new Environmental Improvement Plan, which we launched earlier this year and it updates our 25 Environment Plan.

And where our 25 Year Environment Plan set out our framework, our new plan sets out the actions on the environment. It details a really powerful delivery plan for each of our ten goals, matched with stretching interim targets to measure progress because obviously we have to see that we are making the progress that water targets expect.

Taking these actions will help us restore nature, tackle environmental pollution, and increase the prosperity of our country. We are doing this through setting ambitious new air quality interim targets, implementing a new water efficiency roadmap, and setting a suite of targets to reduce different types of waste, amongst other measures.

One of our new statutory targets is our Water Demand Target, which aims to deliver a 20% reduction in the use of the public water supply per head of population by 2037/38.

To achieve this target, we plan to reduce household water use to 122 litres per person per day. At the moment the average is approximately 140 litres per person per day. Some water companies have already brought that down but this is the average water use we are setting – 122 litres per person per day. We also have targets to reduce leakage by 37% and reduce non-household water use by 9% by March 2038.

To support households and businesses to achieve this reduction, a mandatory water efficiency labelling scheme will be introduced, and a roadmap on water efficiency will be developed, covering both new developments and retrofits. So our new homes going forward will have gadget showers and loos that all use less water.

I also encourage water companies to increase smart metering for households and businesses through accelerated investment. By understanding how we all are using water, we can better identify approaches to reducing our consumption. In fact just at home, I have a water meter and I received an astronomical bill and I knew I had not used that water and what that indicated was there was probably a leak somewhere, and actually I was right. So that is how the metering helps identify that.

Companies should also make use of Ofwat’s new fund, of up to £100 million pounds, to encourage and support the development of a range of new approaches to water efficiency between 2025-2030, so more tech and innovation will obviously be needed in that space too.

I referred to drought earlier – last year, we experienced the driest summer that we have had here for 50 years and while water supply remained resilient, water companies across the country rightly took action to mitigate the effects of the prolonged dry weather.

We know that an additional 4 billion litres of water a day will be needed in England by 2050 to meet future pressures on public water supply. Half of this will need to be delivered through reducing demand, hence that target to reduce household water use, but the remainder will have to be achieved through increased supply. The government recognises the need for new water resources infrastructure which will include reservoirs, water transfers, alongside of course reducing leakage and conserving water to provide a secure supply. And indeed it is quite ridiculous that this precious resource is actually leaking away so that is critical to tackle. We need this secure supply for future generations and to protect our precious environment.

Ofwat, the regulator, has established RAPID (The Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development) with the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate to help facilitate the development and funding of new, large-scale water supply infrastructure by water companies.

Water companies are already investing £469 million in this current Price Review period (which runs from 2020-2025), to investigate all of the strategic water resources options and research further innovative methods.

I am extremely proud of the landmark commitments that government has made and there are significant opportunities for innovation and collaboration across sectors. Alongside tackling new supply infrastructure, water companies have also made a commitment to achieve net zero operational carbon emissions by 2030 and are working innovatively towards this target and I know there are also some companies here working on net zero.

I wanted to give an example – Anglian Water is using solar power at its Grafham Water Treatment Works, which uses approximately 45 million kilowatt hours of energy a year to supply clean water to hundreds of thousands of their customers. The energy generated by the solar panels will be used on the site to help power these essential operations. Nearly 43,000 solar modules will generate over 26% of the energy used by the works; so that’s enough electricity to supply 3,000 houses.

Working across sectors is also critical. ‘Low Carbon Farming’, who have two of the UK’s largest greenhouses at sites near Norwich and Bury St Edmunds, in the east of the country, will be warmed by residual heat from nearby water recycling centres owned by Anglian Water.

Another innovative example is Severn Trent Water, who are using new carbon capture technology to recycle waste into a ‘super fertiliser’ at a treatment works near Birmingham. In a world-first for the sector, this new approach means they can take nutrients from wastewater and turn them into fertilisers, which can go back into the ground and contribute to the growing of our healthy crops.

There are more opportunities than ever for water companies to be innovative. I hope I have demonstrated some of that and also through the policies that we are setting out that will demand this innovation.

For the current price review period, 2020-2025, Ofwat have actually established a £200 million Innovation Fund to grow the water sector’s capacity to innovate, enabling it to better meet the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment.

Ofwat is extending its Innovation Fund to provide at least £300 million pounds to support further sector-changing ideas and ways of working for 2025-2030. However, I am aware that there are current global supply chain issues of construction supplies that have slowed the development of infrastructure to improve water resilience and water quality. Which is why today’s summit is more important than ever in providing opportunities to strengthen those chains and to ensure we bring forward investment required to improve or replace our older infrastructure.

I’m optimistic though – as ever – I wouldn’t remain the Environment Minister if I wasn’t optimistic, because it is quite easy to get negative about things, but we have to be optimistic that as a society we are capable of dealing with all this of working together, so that we can leave the environment in a better state for the next generation.

I very much look forward to seeing the creative new ideas from events such as this and technologies coming forward that will really help us to put water at the heart of the agenda but also solve all the issues that we need.