Ministers have humiliatingly climbed down and offered to forcefully enforce their promises. Water companies are being asked to reduce the amount sewage they dump into Britain’s waterways.
Labour accused ministers of making a U-turn to placate public anger after Tories whipped to vote down an Environment Bill amendment that would have required water companies to stop polluting rivers, coastlines, and other areas.
It sparked a furious backlash on social media this week from environmental campaigners, voters, and caught many Conservative MPs off guard. And this was just a few hours ago. Downing Street had defended its decision to whip against the amendment last week.
But now Environment Secretary George Eustice According to reporters, he has said that he would bolster the measures by making them a lawful obligation. “We’ve listened in Parliament to the debate.” [and]We will convert what was already a government policy into our own. [law]to provide the reassurance people seek.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stated that the amendment that would be presented in the Commons would’very similar’ to amendment 45, which peers were discussing in House of Lords on Tuesday, a vote that the Government was expected lose.
This evening, 213 votes to 60, majority of 153, supported the House of Lords’ move to place a new legal requirement on water companies to take all reasonable measures’ to prevent sewage releases.
This allows the Environment Bill to be sent back to the Commons where the Government will table its own amendment and will put a legal duty on utility firms to ‘secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows’.
Luke Pollard, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, stated that Defra was forced to make the change because of ‘public outcry’ and not out of care for environment. He said that ‘this screeching turn will do little to convince people that the health or our rivers, rather then the health of Conservative polling is at the forefront ministers’ minds’.
Liberal Democrat spokesperson for rural affairs Tim Farron said Conservative MPs had ‘arrogantly ploughed on with supporting a law they knew would do nothing to protect our treasured rivers’, adding they ‘owe their constituents an apology’.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman had earlier on Tuesday insisted it was ‘not right to sign a blank cheque on behalf of customers’ after the Government put the cost of delivering on the terms of the Commons amendment at more than £150 billion. However, Mr Eustice acknowledged that the proposed Government amendment to the Environment Bill will still lead to rising household water bills.
George Eustice, Environment Secretary, has now pledged to boost measures by making them legal obligations. Today’s Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman had earlier defended the decision not to whip against last week’s amendment
A video grab showing untreated waste pouring into Langstone Harbour in Hampshire for 49 hours
This map is from The Rivers Trust and shows where sewage enters local streams. The trust advises people not to enter the water immediately downstream from these discharges. They also recommend that they avoid overflows (brown circles) especially after it has rained.
Surfers Against Sewage’s Safer Seas and Rivers Service tracks combined sewage overflows and forecasts pollution risk. It also monitors water quality at more than 400 locations along the UK coastlines and rivers.
In comments to broadcasters Mr Eustice stated that the water sector would be able to make progress in five years, but that bills will have to rise to finance infrastructure improvements.
Minister to the Cabinet stated: “We’ve been very clear that over the next five-years of the water pricing program, we want to see a reduction of these storm overflows.
“That will require funding, which will result in some increases to water bills to pay for it.
Sewage can be pumped from the sewerage system to rivers via combined sewer overflows. Also known as a storm release valve or storm overflow, this is how sewage can be pumped out. The overflows are designed for releasing excess water after heavy rains or storms, to prevent sewage back up into homes.
To stop this, water companies can release rainwater along with a smaller amount untreated sewage into the country’s waterways.
The Environment Agency reported that raw sewage was released into rivers and streams in England more then 400,000 times in the last year. This was unacceptable, according to Defra.
Mr Eustice told reporters there would be a feasibility study into eradicating the overflows entirely – a move he said could cost between £150billion and £600billion – but that work could be done before then to reduce the country’s ‘reliance on them’ over the next few years.
He stated that Defra’s announcement to Ofwat regarding ‘progressively reducing the discharge of sewage storm overflows’ would see its strategy ‘on a statutory basis’.
Phillip Dunne (Conservative MP for Ludlow, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee) stated that he wanted to impose a legally binding obligation on water companies to address the issue. He stated: “This will take decades to fix. There are hundreds and thousands of kilometres worth of drainage pipes under our streets, across our fields, and many are co-mingling, foul water with surface water, and that’s what’s the root problem. It will take a lot of time and significant resources to fix this.
Nick Robinson, the host, stated this case was about overflows after storms or heavy rainfalls, and not a deliberate policy to pump raw sewage’.
Mr Dunne stated that there was no deliberate policy to do so. It’s an escape mechanism, a release valve if you will, in the event of significant rainfall. This should only be used in extraordinary circumstances. Unfortunately, this has become routine. I think this is why the law should be strengthened.
He added: ‘I do think it is important for directors of water companies to recognise they’ve got a responsibility to fix these problems, so I think imposing a statutory obligation on them will mean that this gets board-level attention, which in the past, some of the fines imposed… have not been significant enough to really capture their imagination. That is changing.
Following a vicious backlash about the vote, several Conservative MPs uploaded social media statements this week.
Sally-Ann Hart, MP for Hastings and Rye, wrote: ‘The Amendment did not include an impact assessment nor was there a plan as to how eliminating sewage overflows can be delivered. To eliminate storm water overflows, it is necessary to transform the Victorian sewage system into a completely new sewage system.
‘It would be irresponsible for any Government to spend an estimated preliminary cost of anywhere between £150 to £650 billion to transform the entire sewage system. This is a significant amount to spend at any time, not just during a health crisis.
‘To give some perspective, £150 billion is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budget put together and £650 billion is billions more than we have spent on supporting livelihoods and jobs throughout the health pandemic.’
In a long Twitter thread, North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson said he was ‘strongly opposed’ to sewage overflows into rivers, adding: ‘The amendment I opposed contained uncosted & unrealistic ideas which would have actually diverted sewage to roads in towns…
“The amendment’s aims have been achieved in all cases by existing law and measures in the Environment Bill. We voted to achieve the same goal by realistic and reasonable means as campaigners.
He made a complete statement explaining that the House of Commons had adopted the majority of Lords’ Amendment 45 regarding Storm Overflows, with the exception of lines 7-14.
“The reason these lines were not included is that there are no data on costs and no clear information on how to split the costs between water companies. The immediate effect of banning overflows during storms would be for raw wastewater to be diverted into our streets during extremely rainy events.
“This would involve transforming a system that has been in operation since the Victorian era.”
Ann Marie Morris (MP for Newton Abbot) wrote: ‘The problem with Lord’s amendment was that it didn’t outline the steps to achieve these measures nor make an assessment of what the impact of implementing them would have.
‘The bottom line is that introducing the new measures is going to cost a lot of money (the estimated cost to making these changes ranges from £150bn to £650bn) and water companies will almost certainly pass that cost straight onto consumers through water bills, if not legally restricted from doing so.
“On that basis, it was difficult for me to vote for an amendment that would increase water bills for constituents, particularly given that we have the highest water bills here in South West England.
Government sources told the Guardian the information in the posts was supplied by Downing Street.
The Rivers Trust analyzed Environment Agency data and found that 86% of England’s rivers were in ‘failing Health’. The charity also stated that more than half of these cases were due to water companies, partly because they were pumping raw sewage into rivers.
And Surfers Against Sewage has highlighted 20 beaches along the Sussex and Hampshire coast which it claims are polluted, including Hastings, Bognor Regis, Saltdean near Brighton and Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.
The group – which maintains a map of the worst-hit locations – has also pinpointed Herne Bay in Kent, Seaton in Cornwall and Hunstanton in Norfolk as being polluted, meaning swimming there is not advised.
A second map from The Rivers Trust also shows where sewage enters local rivers, and the charity advises people to avoid entering the water immediately downstream of these areas, especially after it has been raining.
Luke Pollard (Labour’s shadow Defra Secretary) commented on footage of raw sewage being emitted into rivers and seas across the country.
“Not one English river is healthy and there have been zero improvements since 2016.
Phillip Dunne (Conservative MP for Ludlow, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee) stated that he was seeking a legally enforceable obligation on water companies to address the issue.
A close-up of Surfers Against Waste map showing where swimming is prohibited on a stretch along the south coast
Surfers protesting in the water near Bournemouth Pier The beach was just one of many beauty spots along the south coast where human waste was disposed of over the weekend
“The Government is to blame because water companies were allowed to dump raw sewage into rivers and seas at will.
“The Conservatives should immediately reverse their decision not to amend the Environment Bill so that water companies can reduce the amount of sewage that they pump into our rivers or seas.
“The millions that go to shareholders don’t do anything to clean up our rivers or seas.
“The Tories should learn from Welsh Labour’s record and experience in requiring sustainable drainage systems to reduce the burden on sewage systems and make investment to address future challenges a top priority.”
Hugo Tagholm is the chief executive at Surfers Against Sewage. He stated that water companies do not have the right to ‘destroy these spaces’.
On Tuesday, he told BBC Breakfast: “The amendment being called for is reasonable. We believe that the water companies should reduce the dividends they receive each year to restore our rivers, and our coastlines.
“They don’t have the right to destroy these areas and must take the bold steps to restore them. We need to ensure that the industry doesn’t put their profits before making our spaces safe.
It has been reported that it would cost between £150 billion and £160 billion to make waterways safer.
Defra claims that this work would involve the complete seperation of the sewerage networks, which could lead to ‘potentially substantial disruption for homes and businesses across the country’.
However, they have made it clear that water companies must make storm overflow sewage reductions a priority.
Surfers Against Sewage stated in a blog last week that they will continue to rally. Mr Tagholm said: ‘In the most important of environmental decades it’s shocking that Government recommended that MPs reject progressive, ambitious amendments that would preserve water, air, and nature.
“Why wouldn’t they want water corporations to have a legal obligation to not pollute our rivers, oceans, and oceans with sewage? It’s hard to believe, and it hardly shows any commitment to be the most green Government ever. It is time for more ambitious thinking. Law that puts protected nature back in public ownership, rather than allowing it to be abused by shareholder interests, is needed.
After the amendment has been defeated, the Bill will return to peers for scrutiny.
It comes seven weeks after the Government told wastewater plants that they could dispose of sewage that was not fully treated because of a shortage in chemicals due to the lorry driver crisis.
Last week, 22 Conservatives voted for an amendment to Environment Bill to make it illegal for water companies to dump sewage into rivers.
The Duke of Wellington introduced an amendment to the House of Lords. This would have forced water companies as well as the Government to ‘take every reasonable step’ to prevent the use of combined sewer overflows. These overflows regularly release untreated wastewater into rivers and oceans.
Royston Smith, Conservative MP and who voted down this amendment, said to the Southern Daily Echo: “No one wants sewage in our rivers but you can’t change a system that most of it is still Victorian overnight.
“Things like illegal sewer dumping, that’s another thing. But there is a time when your system cannot cope with heavy rains or flooding. It will overflow and flow into the rivers sadly.
Surfers Against Sewage are outraged at the claims that water companies continue to dump raw sewage into rivers despite being stopped by ministers from the Government.
Hugo Tagholm, a member of the campaign group, stated that they were disappointed that MPs didn’t support the amendment to require water companies to stop raw wastewater from entering our rivers or our oceans.
BBC Breakfast: Mr Tagholm stated that the amendment being sought is reasonable.
“We believe the water companies must reduce the dividends that they make each year to save our rivers and coastlines.
“They don’t have the right to destroy these areas and must take the bold steps to restore them. We need to ensure that the industry doesn’t put their profits before making our spaces safe.
A photo of apparent sewage floating a mile off the Bognor coast was shared widely by social media users this week. Experts in the water industry said that the image looks like an algal bloom, which is unlikely to be caused by wastewater.
The picture was taken by paddleboarder Paul Boniface, 43, who said the ‘sea is criss-crossed with orange-brown foam for the last two miles (from Pagham to Butlin’s). It’s hard to imagine that this was yesterday’s breakfast.
MailOnline received a statement from water industry experts saying that the picture looks very much like algal bloom. Nitrates can cause this problem. Nearly all of the nitrates reaching river and coastal waters come from agriculture, while less than 3% comes from wastewater.
However, Boniface stated that even if the bloom was an algal bloom, it would still be ‘an artifact of pollution’. He added: “You get nitrates in sewage and farm runoff pollution, which goes into water and causes these blooms. According to my understanding, it’s the same cause.
Surfers Against Sewage and other campaign groups said it was vital to get action started to combat sewage pollution now.
However, Environment Secretary George Eustice urged MPs to reject the bill’s amendments just days before Boris Johnson hosts world leaders at Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow.
Social media users posted images of the MPs who rejected the amendment, causing a massive backlash. One person asked: “What kind of person votes for water companies to pump rawsewage into our water?”
Another wrote: “I just emailed my MP asking her to explain the benefits of rawsewage being dumped in our waterways.”
MailOnline was informed by a government source: “Tory MPs have not voted to allow water firms to dump raw sewage in our rivers and oceans.” The Environment Bill will provide progressive reductions in storm overflows.
“The Environment Bill” requires us to set a goal to drive progress on water-quality issues. We are already taking significant steps to improve water quality. Those who claim otherwise are simply not true.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stated Monday that the amount of sewage being discharged by water companies into rivers is unacceptable. Water companies have been told that they must reduce storm water sewage discharges as a priority.
“We have every confidence that this Bill will deliver progressive reductions in storm overflow damage. Any suggestion to the contrary, both disingenuous or untrue, is false.”
The body added that there were ‘significant penalties’ in place for offenders, and earlier this year Southern Water was handed a record-breaking £90million fine, while Thames Water was fined £4million and £2.3million for separate incidents.
The spokesman added that between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £7.1billion on environmental improvements in England, including £3.1billion on storm overflow improvements alone.
It caused a furious reaction on social media by environmental campaigners, voters, and others
MailOnline had been told by a Southern Water spokesperson that the company’s sewer systems were connected with surface water drains across the country to protect homes from flooding.
“In heavy or intense rainfall, the Environment Agency allows wastewater companies to release this rain to protect homes, schools, and businesses from flooding. Customers can also use their toilets and showers as normal.
‘As a service to recreational water users such as kayakers or windsurfers we provide a near real-time Beachbuoy service which alerts them to when this storm water has filled storm tanks and – after screening – is being released through long sea outfalls around two miles out to sea. 98% of outfalls are now covered by sensors and telemetry.
“As wastewater providers catch-up with our industry-leading monitoring efforts, public awareness about storm releases is growing. There are increasing calls for this highly regulated practice’s end. We support these calls and have taken a pioneering approach.
“While separating all sewers and surface drains would be costly and disruptive, we believe that a partnership approach to solving this problem is the best. It is imperative that regulations regarding sustainable drainage are changed to ensure rainwater separation is included in all new construction. It is important to invest in natural capital, such as expanded and enhanced wetlands.
‘Between 2020 and 2025 we are investing almost £2 billion on wastewater services and environmental protection. The challenge is enormous. Climate change is causing more severe rainstorms, while population growth and development eat into greenfields that were previously soakaways for stormwater.
“Concrete or steel alone will not stop storms. But partnership between Southern Water and other wastewater providers, developers and regulators, NGOs and central and/or local government can reduce nation’s dependence on the system.
‘In Thanet were a funding a £400,000 pathfinder programme looking at the sources of rain water in our sewer system with a view to targeting the greatest sources and reducing reliance on the storm system.’
And a spokesman for industry body Water UK said: ‘Water companies are passionate about their role as custodians of the environment and are investing £5billion in the environment – including £1.2billion to improve storm overflows and sewage treatment works.
“More needs to be done. Our 21st Century Rivers Report, which was just published, outlines ten key steps to make the fundamental changes we all desire. We are asking government to pass legislation in a new Rivers Act, which will give rivers more protection.
“Water companies are not the answer and without everyone working together we won’t see the radical transformation required and the healthy, thriving river that everyone wants.