Pollution from sewage works in Cranleigh Waters

ELF was contacted in May 2017 by Cranleigh Civic Society (CCS) about ongoing pollution from a sewage works into Cranleigh Waters, in Surrey. CCS is concerned that the situation will be made worse by planned housing developments and that the issue is not being properly addressed by the authorities in breach of Water Framework Directive requirements. CCS has been campaigning on this issue for more than three years with no legal guidance up to now.

Cranleigh Waters, a stream (classified as a “main river” by the Environment Agency as it is under its jurisdiction rather than that of the local authority) and an outflow from a sewage treatment facility operated by Thames Water, has a multitude of historic licence and permits for sewage effluent discharge to facilitate the dilution of effluent.

Over the last few years the stream has stopped flowing, particularly in the summer months, due to changes in rainfall patterns caused by climate change, low aquifers and increases in population. If the flow is too low the stream can’t dilute the sewage effluent sufficiently and Cranleigh Waters has now become eutrophic. This results in a water body rich in phosphates, nitrates, and organic nutrients and encourages the proliferation of plant life which kills fish and other animals by depriving them of oxygen.

In light of this, CCS has particular concerns over the amount of development proposed for their village and surrounding area. Waverly Borough Council (WBC) has granted planning permission for 1,320 homes and at least 5,000 new homes are proposed to discharge into Cranleigh Waters. This would represent an 86% increase in the discharge of effluent from current levels. The local angling society already has evidence of significantly dwindling fish stocks downstream and CCS considers additional housing projects are likely to cause further impacts.

CCS believes that the baseline data in the June 2017 version of an Amec Foster Wheeler report on Cranleigh Waters carried out on behalf of WBC, is based on a mean value for the period 2010 – 2015. A water expert working with CCS considers that this cannot be described as ‘current’, yet is used as a basis for all modelled predictions. For example, it is indicated that fish are at good or high status whereas locally provided information from an authoritative source would indicate their virtual absence in 2016.

Two weeks ago ELF was urgently notified by CCS that they had been presented with an opportunity to present oral representations at WBC’s local plan examination. Part of those submissions was to be mitigation measures that CCS proposed for Cranleigh Waters in the context of the local plan. ELF sought urgent assistance from our pro-bono professional membership network and John Bates, barrister at Old Square Chambers, long time ELF member and water law specialist, kindly agreed to assist.

Amongst many lines of discussion with John, of particular interest was the finding of the EU court in the Bund für Umwelt case. This found that there was an “obligation of the Member States not to authorise a project that may cause a deterioration of the status of a body of surface water”.

However, having gone to considerable effort, it was with great disappointment that 12 hours before CCS were due to present their submissions, they were told the Inspector no longer wanted to hear from them. This was extremely disappointing. CCS hope that the Inspector will consider their written representations although feedback from one attendee indicated that the environment was not on the table for discussion.

Adrian Clarke of Cranleigh Civic Society and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building who has worked on several large housing and commercial projects, said:

“We are not against new building; we accept the need for new housing particularly in South East England. Our issue is that we think that local authorities should make sure that they sort out the infrastructure before approving new housing estates. In many cases, they are simply not doing that.”

Despite this latest setback, CCS’s campaign continues. The local MP Anne Milton has arranged a meeting with CCS, the Environment Agency, Thames Water and WBC on 24th July 2017 to discuss the problems at Cranleigh Waters.

ELF sees so many synergies with communities that we are working to support and we will continue working with CCS and others who campaign on issues of water quality. More generally of course this case highlights the pressures on the natural environment caused by a rapid increase in house building and the need for regulatory authorities to properly consider their statutory environmental duties in addressing them.