“Scotland's growing sewage spill problem…” – BBC twitter


There is no doubt there is a serious problem with wastewater discharge into Scotland’s rivers and seas. This is fundamentally down to climate change. Unfortunately, the ability of the Scottish Government to take strategic action in mitigation is hampered by Westminster’s control over capital spending.


Last week Tory MPs sparked fury by voting 268 to 204 against proposals tabled in the Lords which sought to place a duty on England’s privatised water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers.

Even the right-wing London media was moved to criticise this head-in-the-sand vote. Soon drone footage was being shared on social media showing untreated sewage being released from the Budds Farm treatment plant, run by Southern Water, from a seven-foot-wide outfall into Langstone Harbour, a conservation area in Hampshire. The sewage was still pouring out after 48 hours But are matters any better in Scotland, where the sewage and water system remains in public hands?


Scottish Water is a publicly-owned corporation that provides sewerage and water services for Scotland. It is directly accountable to Scottish ministers.

The chair of Scottish Water is Dame Susan Rice. A former director of Lloyds TSB, and a current director of the Sainsbury supermarket chain, Dame Susan is head of the Scottish Fiscal Commission which advises the SNP government.

Other board members include Iain Lanagham, a senior oil industry executive; Deirdre Michie, CEO of Oil and Gas UK; and Ken Marnoch, a former Shell senior executive.


It is indisputable that the discharge of raw sewage into the environment – both rivers and seas - in Scotland is on the increase. In August of this year, Scottish Water itself reported that the number of recorded sewage spills had increased by fully 40% over the past five years. Given Scottish Water’s restricted reporting requirements, this data may well cover only a part of the discharge problem.

To put the matter into perspective, Scottish Water official data shows the equivalent of 47,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of waste has been discharged since 2016. In 2020 there was a total of 12,725 "spill events", or roughly 35 every day (and rising). In England, the problem is even higher, with a staggering 400,000 incidents, according to Phillip Dunne MP, Conservative Chair of the Westminster Environmental Audit Committee.

We are now reaching the point where the collective impact on the water environment may be causing an existential crisis. The body responsible for monitoring water quality in Scotland is the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). Recently SEPA reported that the number of waterways classified as “bad” had doubled. Amongst the Scottish rivers with a water quality rated as bad or poor were the Almond, Carron, Dee, Don, Earn, Esk, Kelvin, Lossie, Nairn, Nith, Spey, Tay, Tummel, and Water of Leith.

Failures in the Scottish Water system impact most heavily in urban areas. For instance, between May and June 2016, a blockage caused a mechanical failure at the Scottish Water’s Kinning Park wastewater station. The smell proved so bad that local people were unable to open their windows.


Scottish Water says the growing problem of sewage discharge into rivers is caused not by its failure to provide the correct infrastructure but by the increase in heavy rain, due to climate change. Such sudden flash flooding overwhelms the dense urban sewage system. The same argument is made by the privatised English water companies. But is this true or is it an excuse?

To stop sewage backing up into homes, the storm water and waste that would ordinarily go to Scottish Water treatment centres is released into rivers and the open sea via 3,697 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) across the country. Unfortunately, many of these overflow pipes are close to popular beaches. The situation is similar in England.

The Scottish Water board and management specifically reject the idea that the problem can be solved by "building bigger and bigger sewers". The Chief Operating Officer, Peter Farrer, says that when there is extra heavy rain, parts of the urban sewer network simply cannot cope. The discharge of sewage into the river system will, on this analysis, remain a necessary back-up.

In February 2020, Scottish Water was fined after untreated sewage was released into the River Clyde. The company admitted two charges under the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003 and apologised "unreservedly". The significant point about this particular judgement was that Sara Shaw – the procurator fiscal responsible for cases involving the environment – found that: "Scottish Water failed to take effective remedial steps to address various issues that had been identified over a period of months leading up to this incident. Had those steps been taken at an earlier stage the incident could have been avoided”.

In response, Peter Farrer, the chief operating officer, tried to excuse Scottish Water saying: "Incidents like this are very rare." But, as we have seen, these discharges take place on average 35 times every day, according to Scottish Water’s own figures. Scottish Water was fined £19,000 for this particular discharge.


Such was the outcry when Tory MPs voted down tougher discharge regulations on the English water companies, that Boris Johnson did a typical reverse ferret and announced the Conservative government will now back the change when the legislation returns to the Lords. But environmental campaigners reckon it will take £150bn in fresh investment to create better infrastructure, including storm tanks, to remedy the problem. There is no current mechanism for forcing the English companies to make this investment, nor any sign the Conservative government intends to pressure them.

North of the Border, Scottish Water operates under ministerial direction. The company invests around £600m per annum on capital projects each year – 40% of its total spend. However, it also spends around £170m per annum on servicing the debt on earlier PFI contracts. That is nearly a third of what is spent on investment. Given the proven and growing inadequacy of the sewage system, many might argue that this set of financial priorities should be reviewed by Scottish ministers.

There are examples of countries of a similar size to Scotland that have made significant strides towards better urban sewage management. Denmark, which lacks “easy” access to rivers as a get-out for releasing untreated waste, has employed tougher water regulation allied with new technology to treat more waste in situ. The Danish attitude has been to use wastewater as a resource rather than a problem.

In England, public opinion is at least forcing the introduction of tougher discharge regulations. The discussion is only beginning in Scotland.


The National: National Fact Check True

Can’t avoid giving this one a big tick.