‘Shocking’ incidents of sewage spewing into gardens – with disease outbreaks ‘very possible’

UK

When Martin Greenbank moved into his home in Guildford 15 years ago, he thought it was just right for his growing family.

Near a good state secondary school, and with a blooming back garden, where daffodils spring up beneath a cooking apple tree, and lavender and shrubs border his proudly maintained lawn.

It would be the perfect place for his children to play – or so he thought.

Because, for the last 18 months, “every time it rains moderately”, untreated sewage bursts out of a manhole cover in his back garden, streams across the lawn, along the patio and out through the back gate.

“We get all the foul stuff – effluent, toilet roll, wet wipes, poo dumped in our garden,” he says.

“It stinks.”

Sewage and rainwater pouring through Martin Greenbank's back garden
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Sewage and rainwater pouring through Martin Greenbank’s back garden

Flooding in Martin Greenbank's back garden
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The flood leaves behind a thick layer of brown sludge beneath the apple tree

The only reason it didn’t come into the house again in February is because he had placed sandbags outside to stop it from happening again.

Untreated sewage can be riddled with diseases like e.coli and salmonella, and it only takes a few cells to enter your body to make you ill.

Mr Greenbank and his wife aren’t letting their three children use the back garden for the time being.

“I shouldn’t be paying anything for this at the moment, [while] having someone else’s wastewater dumped in our garden. It’s a cheek to think it’s acceptable.”

The flooded manhole cover left a rail of brown sludge in Martin Greenbank's back garden
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The pressure in the sewer forced the lid off the manhole cover in Martin Greenbank’s back garden

A ‘national scandal’

The problem, known as sewer flooding, is generally caused by a blockage or excessive amounts of sewage or rain, causing untreated sewage to burst out of a weak point in the system, such as a manhole cover.

There were 47,000 cases of sewer flowing on private land and gardens in England and Wales between April 2022 and March 2023.

While these recorded cases have fallen in recent years, those that happen on public land are not reported in the same way.

That means the overall figure is likely much higher, and it is difficult to determine quite how bad the problem is.

Aidan Taylor, lecturer in microbiology at Reading University, says conditions in parts of England are reminiscent of “conditions last seen in Victorian London, where raw sewage was openly dumped into the street and outbreaks of diseases spread by sewage, such as cholera, were common”.

He called it “alarming” to be back in this situation today. “It is very possible we will see outbreaks of disease as a result.”

Labour calls it “sickening beyond belief”, and the Liberal Democrats call it a “national scandal”.

A fountain of sewage pouring out of pipes near Shrivenham in Oxfordshire. Pic: Chris Langlay-Smith
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A mini fountain of sewage near Shrivenham in Oxfordshire. Pic: Chris Langlay-Smith

The aftermath of flooding around a bend in the sewer in Shrivenham. Pic Katherine Foxhall
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The aftermath in Shrivenham. Pic Katherine Foxhall

The problem starts from the fact the UK has a combined sewer network.

That means rainwater and sewage from homes and businesses all wash down the same pipes into a treatment works to be cleaned.

Emergency discharges into rivers – known as combined sewer overflows – have recently prompted widespread public anger at the polluted state of the nation’s waterways.

But sewer flooding, when sewage comes out of weak points in the system like manhole covers, is affecting people closer to home, pouring toilet roll, foul smells and misery into the streets where people live and children walk to school.

‘Humans faeces all over the lawn’

It’s happening around the country.

Rebecca Jordan in Barrowden, a pretty village of stone cottages with thatched rooves, nestled among hills and rivers in Rutland, East Midlands, was sitting at home one Sunday last September when the heavens opened and unleashed a “monsoon-like” sudden, fast downpour.

Worried about the “deluge of rain” flowing down the hill towards her house, she looked out the window at her garden, where normally her chickens and dog happily roam around, and her children play on the trampoline.

But on this day, she saw the manhole cover lift up on to the lawn, “and absolutely tonnes of shit came out. Genuinely, there’s really no other way of putting it”.

“There were just human faeces all over the lawn. Loo paper, tampons and you name it, it was there.

“Wet wipes, stuff you just don’t think people flush down the loo.

“It turns out people in my village do, because it’s all over my lawn.”

She praised the rapid response and fix by Anglian Water. But elsewhere in the country, campaigners have complained about the same thing happening for a long time.

Toilet roll litters the lawn after sewer flooding in Rebecca Jordan's house
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Toilet roll and sanitary products litter the lawn after sewer flooding in Rebecca Jordan’s garden

In Grimston, north Norfolk, a manhole cover has been “spewing untreated sewage and foul water into a local chalk stream from the same spot for more than two years” every time it rains moderately, according to Gaywood River Revival, which campaigns to protect the chalk stream.

The “absolutely disgusting” smell “lingers in the air outside”, a spokesperson for the group told Sky News.

Over in Oxfordshire, Ash Smith, of the Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) group, in February spotted a manhole cover on Station Road in Shipton-under-Wychwood leaking toilet roll.

“There’s kids walking and cycling to school” along the road, he says. “You get splashed by cars, it’s thrown into the air.”

Flooding from a manhole cover in Grimston, north Norfolk. Pic: Gaywood River Revival
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Flooding from a manhole cover in Grimston, north Norfolk. Pic: Gaywood River Revival

Who’s to blame?

Sometimes it’s down to blockages in the system, as turned out to be the case with roots and a brick near Martin’s house, or wet wipes and fat in Norfolk. Thames Water and Anglian have both since sent respective teams to unblock the pipes and promised clear-ups.

But all water companies Sky News spoke to said the extremely wet winter, with lots of named storms, was simply overwhelming their system.

The rainwater either washes down the drain or infiltrates the pipes via soggy ground, if the sewers are poorly sealed or are cracked.

Climate change is not likely to help, forecast as it is to concentrate rain in the UK into more intense downpours, according to the Met Office.

The regulator, Ofwat, has asked water companies to start preparing for these changes.

In the meantime, the country’s ageing sewer system is also threatening desperately needed house-building, with the Environment Agency recently objecting to a development in Oxfordshire on the basis the sewer system couldn’t cope.

Campaigners argue the system should be designed or upgraded to cope with heavy rain.

Mr Smith says: “Rain in winter is hardly a surprising event. We are sick of hearing the same lame excuses about the weather.”

A flooding sewer in Shrivenham. Pic: Chris Langlay-Smith
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A flooding sewer in Shrivenham. Pic: Chris Langlay-Smith

Residents ‘expect action’ to stop sewer flooding

Sir John Armitt, chair of government advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission, says residents can “rightly expect action to tackle these shocking incidents”.

Water companies should better maintain and expand their systems “to reduce the risk of blockages and collapses”, he told Sky News.

A spokesperson for industry group Water UK said: “We understand the inconvenience that sewer flooding can cause, and thankfully there has been a 20% reduction in sewage flooding gardens and land over the past few years.”

Companies are proposing a £10.2bn investment to “radically increase the capacity of our sewers to stop sewer flooding and prevent spills”, including installing huge storm tanks to hold rainwater and sustainable drainage projects.

But it urged the government to implement policies including ending the automatic right of developers to connect new houses to sewers and allowing water companies to repair drains on private property.

Sewage and rainwater pouring through Martin Greenbank's back garden
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Sewage and rainwater rising up in Martin Greenbank’s back garden

Labour and the Liberal Democrats accused the government of allowing water companies to get away with it.

Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson Tim Farron MP said: “This is a national scandal. The government has allowed these firms to make massive profits whilst letting pipes and infrastructure fall apart.”

Labour’s Steve Reed, shadow environment secretary, called it “sickening beyond belief” and urged the government to “stand up to water companies”.

The Lib Dems said water firms should pay out to affected residents, while Labour said it would give the regulator, Ofwat, the power to ban water boss bonuses.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told Sky News it is “taking tough action to hold polluters to account”, including increasing water company inspections fourfold, recruiting more staff, and consulting on water company bonus bans.

“As part of our efforts to reduce the volume of water going into our sewers, we are also increasing sustainable drainage systems in new developments and will be consulting on this shortly.”

As for Mr Greenbank in Guildford, Thames Water sent a team to clear his pipes after being contacted by Sky News, and is in the process of cleaning his garden, although there hasn’t been more heavy rain since then to test the fix.

“But I won’t be eating anything off that apple tree for at least another year,” he says.

Martin Greenbank set up a barrage to stop the water from entering his home again
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Martin Greenbank set up a barrage to stop the water from entering his home again

Water companies say they are clearing up and making improvements

A spokesperson for Thames Water apologised for the sewer flooding at Martin Greenbank’s home and recognised “how difficult this situation can be for any customer, and unfortunately in his case both heavy rain and a blocked sewer pipe have contributed to the sewer flooding”.

Its engineers have “now cleared the pipe, which should resolve the issue and help to prevent it from happening again”, and it is working on a refund and a goodwill payment.

Regarding the Shipton-under-Wychwood manhole cover, Thames Water said its engineers located and removed “a blockage in the sewer caused by a combination of fat and wet wipes”.

“Customers can help us prevent these kinds of blockages, which can cause sewage to back up out of manholes, by only flushing the three Ps – pee, poo and paper.”

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An Anglian Water spokesperson said the “ongoing issues at Grimston pumping station are caused by surface and groundwater infiltration into our sewer network following the ongoing wet weather”.

“We’re working very closely with the Environment Agency to monitor the issue and have teams checking the site regularly. We’re currently using tankers to take the excess water away and create more capacity in the network.”

Thames Water also apologised to people in Shrivenham “impacted by overflowing manholes this winter”.

“The heavy rainfall caused our local sewer system to overload, resulting in heavily diluted wastewater to escape from nearby manholes.”

It cited “higher-than-average long-term rainfall… with groundwater levels also normal to exceptionally high for the time of the year”.

It is planning to complete a £17m upgrade to the nearby including Witney Sewage Treatment Works this year, which “will give a 66% increase in treatment capacity by the end of this year”.

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