ECJ rules against UK for wastewater failings

The UK has been prosecuted by the EU for failing to properly treat sewage at several locations. 

After complaints from members of the public, the European Commission began legal proceedings in 2009 against the UK for breaching the Urban Waste Water Directive.

The directive requires wastewater from towns and cities with a population of more than 2,000 (known as an agglomeration) to be collected and treated, while areas with a population higher than 10,000 people and in environmentally sensitive areas must apply more advanced treatment methods.

The breaches concern several locations across the UK: 

  • the Gowerton and Llanelli agglomerations in Wales;
  • Gibraltar, which has no urban wastewater treatment plant; 
  • Banchory and Stranraer in Scotland, and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland; and 
  • the Tiverton, Durham, Chester-le-Street, Islip, Broughton Astley, Chilton, Witham and Chelmsford agglomerations in England. 

In 2014, the commission warned the UK of its intention to take legal action. In response, the government said that wastewater treatment systems in the Gowerton and Llanelli agglomerations had not performed as intended, and that it would not achieve compliance with the directive in this area until the end of 2020. Work was undergoing in another 24 areas to achieve compliance. 

The commission said it was not satisfied with the UK response, and took the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). It alleged that sewage had been spilled in waters under various designations, including the birds directive, and that designated shellfish waters in the Burry Inlet had been polluted by spills from the Gowerton and Llanelli agglomerations, with cockles harvested from it contaminated with the E.coli bacteria.

The court noted in its judgment that work on sustainable drainage systems in the area had started too late, which is why compliance would be delayed till 2020. 

The government told the court that Ballycastle would be compliant with the directive by September 2017. Work to install secondary sewage treatment facilities had been delayed by problems with purchasing land needed for the work, it said. In Gibraltar, work to solve the problem was complex and involved reclaiming land from the sea, but would be complete by the end of 2018, the government confirmed.  

In Tiverton and Broughton Astley, work was underway to ensure compliance. However, the commission argued that until the work was complete and data showing compliance for a full year was available, the two areas remained in breach of the directive. 

Although the government maintained that advanced treatment works had been completed in Durham, Chester-le-Street, Islip and Chilton, the commission said the areas would be judged to be in breach of the directive until a full years’ data was available to prove otherwise. 

The commission withdrew the complaints regarding Banchory and Stranraer after the UK provided new data. 

A spokesperson for Defra said: ‘All sites in England included in the judgment now comply with the directive and plans are in place elsewhere across the UK to deliver compliance by 2020 at the latest.’

There are no fines against the UK as a result of this judgment, although it will have to pay costs. Defra did not respond to a request for further information.



Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.

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