A very mucky vote - how the Conservatives are failing to keep our coast and rivers clean 

October 25, 2021 8:02 AM
By Zoe Franklin

Last week MPs voted on the Environment Bill and as part of that, they had the chance to vote for an amendment that would have stopped private water companies from dumping raw sewage into the UK's rivers and coastlines. A 'no brainer' I hear you say; of course, MPs would vote for that.

As with so many votes and Conservative MPs, the obvious choice was not the one they made and 265 of them voted AGAINST the amendment which means it is not included in the new Environment Bill. Put another way, they voted to allow sewage to continue to be dumped into our rivers and coastlines - Guildford and Cranleigh's Conservative MP Angela Richardson was one of them.

This kind of sewage dumping is deemed necessary in 'exceptional circumstances' by water companies. However, the practice is far from 'exceptional'; a report by The Rivers Trust shows that sewage flowed into Surrey's rivers for more than 19,800 hours in 2020. The situation in the River Wey which runs through Guildford and Waverley is particularly bad with it listed as one of the worst 23% in England for ecological and overall river health. For example, in Guildford the Slyfield Sewage Treatment Works storm overflow spilt 27 times for a total of 346 hours in 2020 (an increase of 135% on 2019).

Sewage overflows are due to much of our sewage treatment system being old (frequently Victorian), outdated and unable to handle the levels of sewage that it is forced to cope with. However, with water companies being shareholder led and upgrades to sewage treatment works at the mercy of long-winded funding processes, progress to ensure that the sewage system is fit for the 21st century is painfully slow. Privatised water companies paid £57bn in dividends to shareholders between 1991 and 2019, some of which could have been used instead to build better infrastructure.

As with so many environmental issues, the Government is dragging its feet on this issue and has been for decades. When the UK was part of the EU, it was prosecuted multiple times for the discharge of raw sewage into rivers. Forcing water companies 'to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage' would have been a huge step forward in making our rivers and coastline cleaner and safer.

The sad reality is that without Government holding water companies to account over this lack of investment, the Environment Agency will continue to not have the clout to challenge and prosecute water companies for the practice of sewage dumping, and shareholder-owned water companies will continue to not make the swift improvements to the sewage treatment system that are so desperately needed.

You can find out more about this problem at The Rivers Trust.

Zöe Franklin
Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Guildford, Cranleigh & our Villages

25th October 2021