Why MPs voting against new sewage restrictions is causing a stink

·6 min read
Dirty water being discharged into a river (Shutterstock)
Dirty water being discharged into a river (Shutterstock)

Conservative MPs in the House of Commons have caused an uproar by voting against a House of Lords amendment to the Environment Bill that placed a legal duty on utility companies to reduce the amount of untreated sewage they discharge into Britain’s rivers.

The Lords amendment, proposed by Charles Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, would have compelled businesses to demonstrate progressive reductions in water pollution and required them to “take all reasonable steps” to avoid using combined sewer overflows, which are made available in the aftermath of heavy rainfall to prevent localised flooding but are not intended for everyday use.

But the proposal was voted down 268-204, with just 22 Conservative MPs breaking ranks to defy Boris Johnson’s environment minister George Eustice, arguing that the measures were unnecessary and that the extent of infrastructure investment required to bolster Britain’s waterways was too steep.

While the Lords are expected to reinsert the measures into the bill on Tuesday before returning it to the Commons for a second vote later this week, anger about the outcome has been considerable, especially given that it comes just days before the all-important Cop26 climate change summit of world leaders gets underway in Glasgow.

Tory MP Huw Merriman, who voted in favour of the amendment, said the provisions contained in the bill in its current form were not adequate and, while acknowledging that upgrades to the UK’s Victorian-era sewage system would be costly, making them was necessary because: “To have sewage being discharged down streets, when there is too much rain, into the sea is just absolutely shocking.”

One MP who felt the likely expense involved was prohibitive was Conservative Julie Marson, who claimed: “The preliminary cost of the required infrastructure change was estimated to be between £150bn and £650bn.

“Unless we asked taxpayers to contribute, most of the water companies who would be carrying out this work would go bankrupt, meaning the work could not be completed anyway.

“The cost works out at between about £5,000 and £20,000 per household. I felt it would be unfair to sting local people with a bill of this size.”

Among those reacting angrily to the decision was Feargal Sharkey, former lead singer of the seminal Northern Irish punk band The Undertones and a keen fly fisherman and clean rivers campaigner.

“We’re lecturing the rest of the planet on climate change yet the reality is there is not a single river in England that makes good overall environmental health,” Mr Sharkey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday.

The activist said “every single river” in England is polluted and “a major cause is the water industry dumping sewage”, accusing MPs of being “unwilling and incapable” of addressing the situation.

“The truth is what we are looking at is the result of a massive under-investment in infrastructure for the last 30 years and a complete failure of oversight and regulation of the industry by Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the government itself,” Mr Sharkey said.

His claims are supported by the Environment Agency’s own figures, which show that water companies discharged sewage into rivers in England more than 400,000 times in 2020 and that untreated effluent was released into waterways for more than three million hours over the course of last year.

The Rivers Trust has meanwhile warned that all of Britain’s rivers are currently failing to pass health inspections, with 53 per cent suffering at least in part because of sewage being released into them.

Also expressing frustration at the verdict from Westminster was Hugo Tagholm of the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, who told BBC Breakfast he was “really disappointed”.

“The amendment that is being called for is reasonable. We believe the water companies need to cut into the dividends they make every year to restore our rivers and our coastlines,” Mr Tagholm said.

“They haven’t got a right to destroy these spaces and need to take the ambitious steps to restore them and we need to make sure the industry is not putting their profits ahead of making our spaces safe.”

Both the Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage have released maps to highlight which waterways and bays are currently considered clean and which are unfit for recreation as a result of exposure to untreated sewage.

With Labour MPs like Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Stephen Morgan, Richard Burgon, Bill Esterson and Luke Pollard vowing to fight back to curtail water pollution, anger has only grown on Twitter over the last week.

“Brexit is now not just metaphorically but literally - sewage,” wrote the philosopher AC Grayling.

“They disdain us, they disdain this country, all they care about is profit for their pals,” tweeted author Emma Kennedy, alluding to the “chumocracy” Mr Johnson has been accused of presiding over.

Political journalist Jim Pickard noted: “There’s a lingering disquiet about Tory MPs voting last week against an amendment to stop private water companies dumping raw sewage into rivers and coastlines…not sure they’ve gauged the public mood on this.”

A government spokesman sought to dispel the row by telling The Daily Mail: “Tory MPs have categorically not voted to allow water companies to dump raw sewage into our rivers and seas.

“The provisions in the [existing] Environment Bill will deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows.

“The Environment Bill requires us to set a target to drive progress on water quality, and we are already taking significant action to address water quality more widely. Claims to the contrary are simply wrong.”

The River Itchen near Winchester, Hampshire (Shutterstock)
The River Itchen near Winchester, Hampshire (Shutterstock)

However, the furore over the amendment’s rejection comes a matter of weeks after concerns were raised that the ongoing supply chain chaos seen in Britain since the summer as a result of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic could mean a shortage of water treatment chemicals like ferric sulphate.

The Environment Agency responded by granting companies the greenlight to continue their activities, saying in a statement: “Normally, you need a permit under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 to discharge treated effluent from a wastewater treatment works to surface water or groundwater. Permits contain conditions that control the quality of the effluent you can discharge.

“You may not be able to comply with your permit if you cannot get the chemicals you use to treat the effluent you discharge because of the UK’s new relationship with the EU, coronavirus (Covid-19), [or] other unavoidable supply chain failures, for example the failure of a treatment chemical supplier.

“If you follow the conditions in this regulatory position statement (RPS) you can discharge effluent without meeting the conditions in your permit. You must get written agreement from your Environment Agency water company account manager before you use this RPS.”

The decision was attacked by deputy Green Party leader Amelia Womack, who told The Independent in September that Britain’s rivers were “already appallingly polluted” and lamented that now “more pollution [is] being sanctioned as a result of the failure of government”.

“This is a failure of their understanding on how our country’s most basic infrastructure works and using our environment as a dumping ground rather than addressing the root causes of the problem,” Ms Womack said.

“To prevent further Brexit chaos and undermining of environmental protections, the government must work to mend supply chains and work to cooperate rather than trying to look ‘tough’.”

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