European courts have ruled that the UK is in breach of EU water quality rules, leaving the country facing heavy fines.
The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that inadequate sewage treatment facilities in London and Sunderland mean the UK is in breach of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC), and could be subject to heavy fines from the European Commission.
Under the Directive, EU member states had to ensure specified water-quality standards were met in urban areas by 31 December 2000. More than a decade later, however, there remain four plants in the UK that release raw sewage into waterways when overwhelmed by storm waters.
The court rejected the UK's argument that it was complying with the Directive because it was working to improve the sites, stating that member states could not justify non-compliance with the requirements and time limits of a directive by pleading practical, administrative or financial difficulties.
The European judges did not specify a financial penalty to be imposed on the UK government, but in 2010 the commission requested that Belgium be fined €15 million and ordered to pay another €62,000 for each day it remained in breach of the same water-quality legislation.
Responding to the ruling, a Defra spokesperson said: "We are disappointed by the court's findings as we are already working on major improvements to sewage and treatment systems in London."
Alongside updating five sewage treatment works in London, Thames Water is planning to create the Thames Tideway Tunnel - a £4.2 billion "super sewer" - to solve the city's capacity and water-quality issues.
Plans for the tunnel have been the subject of public consultation, and a final submission to the planning inspectorate is expected early next year. Following the European court's ruling, however, Labour peer Lord Berkeley called on the government to review the project and investigate whether there are any cheaper alternatives.