Why has dumping a sewage amendment created a stink? Is the reaction justified?

Elliot Chappell
© Jananz/Shutterstock.com

MPs rejected an amendment last week that would have legally required water companies to reduce the amount of sewage discharged into UK waterways. 265 Tories voted against the Lords amendment to the environment bill, sparking a backlash from campaigners and activists. A list of all the Conservatives who voted down the amendment was published by Evolve Politics and widely shared on social media. MPs say they have received abusive messages in the wake of the vote, with David Davies MP accusing one Twitter user of “spreading hatred“. Health minister Maria Caulfield called allegations that MPs voted to discharge sewage into the sea “lies and misinformation”. Is the big reaction to this vote justified?

The environment bill is currently progressing through parliament. It will replace EU environmental regulations following Brexit and create a new ‘Office for Environmental Protection’. The House of Lords amendment to the government bill, tabled by crossbencher the Duke of Wellington Charles Wellesley, was backed by peers earlier this year. The controversial section would have required water companies to “take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”. The government removed this change in the Commons, with the backing of 265 votes to 202 (including 22 Tory rebels).

Why was the amendment dumped? Rebecca Pow, the junior environment minister, told MPs that getting rid of storm sewage overflows – which release excess storm water from combined sewers when they become overwhelmed – would cost between an estimated £150bn and £660bn. She also argued that overflows “should potentially always remain” as an emergency measure in the event of flooding.

Tory backbenchers added their voices in criticising the proposal for its lack of a plan. “Some might argue that a plan is not essential, that one can be formulated afterwards. I would be sympathetic to this point of view if we were talking about a simple, inexpensive endeavour,” Conservative MP for Witney and West Oxfordshire Robert Courts wrote in his blog. “To put those figures in perspective, £150bn is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together, and £650bn is well above what has been spent combatting the coronavirus pandemic.” Several Tories have now posted very similar justifications with information that, according to The Guardian, was supplied by Downing Street.

Labour voted against the government. “We would all have sympathy with the ministers’ argument that in extremis, in the event of severe weather, raw sewage discharges into rivers should be permissible, but we need to ensure that that happens only in extreme circumstances,” Luke Pollard said. He described it instead as a “daily, regular, continual occurrence” that is “unacceptable”, and said he expected further compromise when the bill returns once again from the Lords.

The frequency with which overflows are used is the crux of the issue, and explains the outrage seen over the weekend. Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters on more than 400,000 occasions last year, according to the Environment Agency. It should only happen in exceptional circumstances, such as during extreme rainfall, and the European Court of Justice has ruled that countries have an obligation to treat sewage before it is released into waterways. But, in reality, untreated human waste flowed into English rivers and seas for more than 3.1 million hours via storm overflow pipes last year, as sewage discharges increased from 292,864 incidents in 2019 to 403,171 in 2020, a 37% rise.

It should be noted that the increase partly reflects more monitoring of storm overflows. Monitoring was placed on 12,092 overflows in 2020, compared to 8,276 in 2019. But there can be no disputing that English waterways are in a dire state. Just 14% of rivers in England were considered to be in “good ecological condition” last year. The country has the worst river quality in Europe. The World Wide Fund for Nature reports that rivers in England are “used as open sewers”, and that targets for 75% of them to be healthy by 2027 are “very unlikely” to be met.

The government left in the bill a new duties on water companies to: publish data on the storm overflow operation annually; publish information within one hour of the start of an overflow, its location and when it stops; continuously monitor water quality near an overflow or sewage disposal works; develop plans to manage and develop its networks and outlining how overflows will be addressed. All are positive steps. But the insistence that untreated human waste should only be dumped in our waterways in exceptional circumstances is scant reassurance given how frequently it happens. The inescapable fact remains that, as a result of the vote last week, if the legislation is left as amended by the government, water companies will continue to be able to deposit lots and lots of untreated sewage in our waterways.

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