Can we afford this government’s blasé attitude to dirty water?

Greenlighting effluent. Composite image by the author based on an images by Jean-Pierre Pellissier from Pixabay and Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

By now there can be very few people who have not seen the headlines about the astonishing number of Tory MPs who voted down the Lords’ Amendments after clause 78 of the Environment Bill to require sewage companies to make improvements, and to demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage. This new requirement to improve was to be backed by more stringent reporting, preferably in real time so that we members of the public could make better-informed decisions: for example, whether to allow our children to play in the water.

The Lords’ amendment did not inflict harsh targets on the water companies, nor did it require them to aim for zero discharges of untreated sewage, as many of us would prefer. The fact that for some years charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) has been reporting in real time on the safety of coastal waters for the purpose of swimming, suggests this is not an onerous requirement. Sad to say, even the little that the Lords’ amendment did require, proved to be too much for a political party hypocritically trying to paint itself as born-again environmentally friendly.

Why vote down a requirement for sewage companies to ‘improve’?

The vote came as 23 beaches in Cornwall were declared no-swim zones, 17 in Dorset and 14 in Devon. This was due in part to combined sewage overflows (CSOs), caused by heavy rainfall ‒ ‘in part’, because CSOs, which are usually seasonal and temporary, should not be confused with increased pollution in the environment, and are increasingly being abused by the water companies outside periods of heavy rainfall. West Country Voices has already provided a handy list of MPs who voted in favour of the Lords’ amendment (spoiler: only Simon Hoare for the North Dorset constituency and Derek Thomas for St. Ives in Cornwall stood out as ‘good guys’ amongst the Tory MPs who dominate our region), as well as the overwhelming number in our region who voted it down.

When the UK is days away from hosting COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference being billed as ‘the last chance to get runaway climate change under control’, how on earth could Tory MPs vote down even such a comparatively tame amendment?

Meme by the author

The excuse some have given is that stormwater overflows are legal and tightly regulated by the Environment Agency through a system of permits. They are considered to be an important mechanism to protect people’s homes and workplaces from being flooded with sewage during heavy rainstorms.

“As rainfall has become more severe due to climate change, with more people, buildings, highways, agricultural and industrial practices, our sewers and water pipes are being used to capacity – resulting in an increasing frequency of the use of overflows,” a spokesperson for South West Water recently told ITV News.

Er, isn’t that grounds for requiring improvements of some sort? Especially as climate change will only worsen over time. Water companies have under-invested over the past decade, while shelling out generous dividends to shareholders. It’s almost as if the venture capital model of ‘investing’ in water utilities to gouge out profits rather than provide a public service is not the best business model for running a public utility. When they breach the law and are fined, all they do is pass the cost of the fine onto the public. There is, as a result, absolutely no incentive to stop.

Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton and minister for the environment, claimed that the reason the government couldn’t back imposing a duty on water companies to improve their operations so as to reduce the harm of raw sewage discharges was that it would cost between £150-600 billion to eliminate them, which would impact customer bills. Again, this is a ‘straw man’ argument, since the amendment requires improvement, but does not specify the aim of ‘total elimination’ or a timeframe in which to achieve it (although logically, that should be the aim, and as soon as possible, please). Sure, the Duke of Wellington used the word ‘elimination’ when he introduced the amendment, but it is not in the text.

Yet again, (some of) our MPs are treating us like absolute idiots, filling the airwaves with bogus arguments. For who will disagree with the need to prevent homes and workplaces from being flooded with sewage? Or having a concern about massive costs being passed on to consumers in the form of higher bills? Nobody. Yet that is not what the Lords’ Amendments seek to do, so giving that as a reason for voting them down is insultingly disingenuous. It is pure sophistry and about as far from the national interest as you could sail and still be on the same planet.

Worse still, some MPs are trying to use the tragedy of the murder of Sir David Amess – the Southend-on-Sea MP killed by an Islamic extremist affiliated to Islamic State – to claim that criticism of their voting record on the issue of discharging raw sewage into our rivers and seas leaves them open to death threats.

Why are Tory MPs behaving so appallingly on this matter? Could it be because their disastrous version of Brexit, which is decimating the UK’s supply chains, has led to a shortage of chemicals needed to treat waste? Our government’s solution is to ‘relax’ requirements on the treatment of effluent until the end of the year.

There are breaches elsewhere too. A freedom of information request last year revealed that we imported almost 30,000 tonnes of Dutch sewage sludge, containing human waste, to use as fertiliser on farmland in the UK, when (a) it is banned for use in the Netherlands and (b) there are more sustainable alternatives closer to home. Is that now leaching into our groundwater? Brexit is quite literally turning us into the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ again – a shameful epithet we had left far behind us during our EU membership.

What happened to all those promises by the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove that Brexit would allow us to be greener and have even better environmental standards than before? Just more lies to add to the growing number on the side of the big red Brexit bus. In their 2017 general election manifesto, the Tories promised to be the first government to pass the environment on to the next generation in a better state than they inherited it. More hot air. The 2019 general election manifesto, while reiterating Theresa May’s goal of reaching net zero by 2050, was more muted, with some of its stated policies actually being harmful to the environment. As they revealed in their Spring conference, it’s a case of being a little bit green here and there to bamboozle people on the doorstep into thinking they’re being a lot more environmentally friendly than they really are.

Why does water pollution matter?

Water is an essential resource for all life on the planet. Polluted water can be toxic to both humans and the environment. Specific illnesses related to faecal matter in water – due to the discharge of untreated sewage into it – include: diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis A and polio. As a nation, we took pride in ourselves for the treatment, control and even the complete eradication of some of these illnesses, so that they were no longer killers in the twentieth century. Food poverty amongst children (resulting from harsh Conservative policies) has already seen the return of rickets, a scourge in Victorian times. Some of my own ancestors died of cholera or typhoid. Are the Tories intent on bringing those back too?

How do we measure pollution?

Bournemouth beach is the nation’s favourite and is ranked fifth in the whole of Europe on Trip Advisor, with St Ives beach in Cornwall ranked tenth. There are nine blue flag beaches within the Bournemouth-Christchurch-Poole (BCP) area alone, with a further two elsewhere in Dorset. As well as Porthmeor beach in St. Ives, Cornwall boasts a further seven blue flag beaches dotted around its popular coastline. That’s not just a ‘nice to have’. It’s essential for the local economy and the health and well-being of local residents. One of the many requirements to achieve blue flag status is that ‘no industrial, waste-water or sewage-related discharges should affect the beach area’.

EU comparison of proportion of excellent beaches, sourced from The European Environment Agency

How do we rank cleanliness of bathing water? The Environment Agency carries out official readings for faecal indicators such as E.coli (EC) and Intestinal Enterococci (IE) during the season (15 May – 30 September). Note, that these tests are only carried out in season (ignoring the growing enthusiasm for swimming all-year-round), and only on waters deemed suitable for swimming. Current regulations allow the bottom 15 per cent of the worst results to be discounted, so they likely underestimate the true scale of pollution of the UK’s waters. The measurements have shown a marked deterioration under Conservative rule, even if we disregard 2020’s result because only 20 per cent of waters were tested due to the covid pandemic (compared with 52 per cent in Spain and 100 per cent in Malta, for example).

UK bathing waters rated excellent – chart by the author based on European Environment Agency data

There are also private initiatives, including the annual Great British Beach Clean organized by the Marine Conservation Society (which also covers inland waterways despite the name). The most recent was held in September 2021, but results have not been released yet. The 2020 edition found approximately 1,130 items of litter per 100 metres in Dorset, and enough litter to fill 51 bin bags after cleaning just 11 beaches. Surfers Against Sewage provides ongoing monitoring through its Safer Seas Service, accessible through an app. The 2020 SAS Water Quality Report highlights massive failings on the part of sewage treatment facilities, especially Southern Water, in fulfilling their statutory duties.

Meanwhile the Rivers Trust says sewage is discharged into our rivers on a daily basis; that it isn’t an isolated problem and that it affects city centre rivers and what should be pristine chalk streams alike. Like Surfers Against Sewage, the Rivers Trust also provides a map with real-time data highlighting pollution hot-spots.

The race to climate resilience will be won or lost on rivers ‒ and right now we are losing.”

A snapshot of pollution – composite image by author based on images from The Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage

All of these initiatives underscore the need for a legal obligation for water companies to improve their operations, if we are ever again to enjoy the same standard of clean water of merely a decade ago, and meet our climate change goals.

Help! by aklifikritasarim from Pixabay

What can individuals do to reduce pollution?

You can count on social media for a dose of humour to help you control your anger. My personal favourites are:

‘outside the EU Britain is seeking Turd Country Status’, and we have gone ‘from Kool Britannia to Stool Britannia’.

We can all do our bit to help keep coastal waters clean by:

  • making sure we always put litter in the bins provided or take it home with us;
  • never flush wet wipes, cotton buds or sanitary items down the toilet;
  • never put fats, oils and grease down drains;
  • if you are a homeowner, check your drains aren’t misconnected, sending dirty water from toilets, showers and dishwashers into the wrong pipes and into rivers and the sea;
  • join local environmental clean-up drives (e.g. campaign happening this month and next, leading up to a global day of action on November 6);
  • join or volunteer for conservation societies; and
  • make more noise! For all of their moaning about social media being a vipers’ nest, the vast majority of MPs use it, often for propaganda purposes, and they do take note if a topic captures the public’s imagination and/or indignation.

Please write to your MP and lobby them to do the right thing at the next reading of the Environment Bill, when they will have the chance to vote on the Lords’ Amendments again. Let’s pressure them into voting the right way this time – and if they won’t? Let’s all remember what they did when the next general election comes around.