The Manchester Ship Canal Company (MSCC) has won a court battle to sue United Utilities over sewage spills polluting the water.

It follows a long-running dispute between the two firms which began in 2010.

The MSCC was initially blocked from taking legal action against United Utilities over sewage spills, but it managed to overturn the decision on appeal at the Supreme Court which has been announced.

The Supreme Court ruled that "the owner of a canal or other watercourse has a property right in the watercourse, including a right to preserve the quality of the water. That right is protected by the common law.

"The discharge of polluting effluent into a privately-owned watercourse is an actionable nuisance at common law if the pollution interferes with the owner’s use or enjoyment of its property."

The ruling could pave the way for others to take action against water firms who release untreated sewage into waterways.

Recent data has found that rivers in Greater Manchester are some of the worst impacted in England for sewage spills.

The Croal and Irwell had sewage discharged into them nearly 12,000 times in 2023, which works out at 95 spills per mile of water, according to Environment Agency figures analysed by The Guardian.

It led to criticism from Greater Manchester MPs and councillors over the scale of the problem around the region.

Around 2.6 billion litres of treated and clean water flows into the Manchester Ship Canal from United Utilities’ Davyhulme wastewater treatment works each day.

The Ship Canal, which opened in 1894, connects Manchester and Salford to Liverpool, and was a key route for goods coming and going from the North West’s industrial heartlands.

It is still used today to store millions of tonnes of cargo each year.

In 2005, Peel Ports Group bought the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, bringing together the Port of Liverpool and the Manchester Ship Canal along with Clydeport and Medway Ports.

United Utilities said it will consider the ruling and understands the need for change.

A spokesperson said: “We are considering the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling and the clarification of the circumstances in which private owners could bring proceedings in respect of discharges.

“We understand and share people’s concerns about the need for change and we have already made an early start on an ambitious proposed £3 billion programme to improve over 400 storm overflows across the North West which would cut spills by 60 per cent over the decade to 2030.

“These proposals form part of our business plan which is currently under consideration as part of Ofwat’s price review process.”

A spokesperson for Peel Ports Group/Manchester Ship Canal Company said: “We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision which concludes that a watercourse owner does have the right to bring legal action against a water company that discharges pollution into its watercourse.”