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The Environment Agency has today (5 August 2004) criticised Ofwat's proposed investment programme to improve water facilities in the North West, claiming the plans will do little to improve the region's environment. Work by the Agency and Ofwat has reduced United Utilities' spending plans for the region for the next five years from 3.2 billion to 2.4 billion. But whilst welcoming Ofwat's proposals to limit the average increase in regional household water bills to 47 over five years (compared to 101 proposed by United Utilities), the Agency says the regulator's planned investment programme will shelve vital improvement schemes needed for the region.

The Agency has highlighted the fact that the dropping of much needed sewer improvement schemes in the region in the Ofwat plans will leave the North West lagging far behind other parts of the country, in terms of water quality. In United Utilities' proposed investment programme covering the period 2005-2010 (AMP 4), the Agency has criticised the decision to drop key improvement projects including the following: Lancaster: the required upgrading of the city centre sewer system which is needed to protect bathing waters and shellfish around the Lune estuary and Heysham. Carnforth: the required improvement of a poorly performing storm overflow which the Agency believes is contributing to poor bathing water quality around Morecambe. Penrith (Cumbria), Dukinfield and Davyhulme (both in Greater Manchester): the required upgrading of storm sewer overflows in all of these areas to protect wildlife and reduce sewage litter.

Clive Gaskell, the Environment Agency's Strategic Environmental Planning Manager for the North West, comments: "The environment represents less than a third of United Utilities' spending plans in its current programme. "We are now facing a situation where the region's waters will not come up to European standards. This means, for example, that the Manchester Ship Canal might be too dirty to develop for recreational use, and that Cumbrian habitats will be endangered."
The Agency is also strongly critical of United Utilities' failure to complete much needed environmental improvements to its sewer network during its most recent investment programme (AMP 3). These include a major sewer upgrade programme in Preston, which is needed to protect the bathing waters of the Sefton and Fylde coast and reduce contamination of the shellfish beds in the Ribble Estuary.

Clive Gaskell comments: "The Agency is deeply concerned that United Utilities is significantly delaying much-needed environmental improvements, despite having accepted the obligation to deliver the National Environment Programme by March 2005. "The consequences of not undertaking this work are that our bathing water and shellfish waters remain at risk of contamination in wet weather." Currently the North West has the most damaged aquatic environment in the UK. The Agency believes the required improvements would clean up urban rivers in the region, protect its bathing waters, and enhance prospects for wildlife.

Martin James Fishing