Thursday 30 March saw the first of a trumpeted series of open meeting events led by Anthony Mangnall MP to allow constituents the chance to “submit a question for South West Water”. After a media and public backlash over the dire state of Britain’s waterways and coasts, MPs have been scrambling to find a way to ‘get out in front’ of the issue. This series of events (pencilled for Brixham, Totnes, Dartmouth and Kingsbridge) are:
- charitably – a way of addressing the issue publicly; or
- less charitably- a way of presenting the image of addressing an issue that really needs solid government legislation and real-life funding.
Here’s how the event content is controlled:
A friend of mine had a ticket to the Brixham event and, as they couldn’t make it, and seeing as ticketing was based on numbers not discrimination, I turned up. Mr Mangnall, to his credit, accepted my presence despite knowing full well my objections to his slavish support of the inadequate and failing Conservative environmental policy.
About 30 people turned up, the vast majority of whom seemed to be Conservative councillors or connected to the party in some way. To call it a love-in would be an under-statement. The agenda was clear from the format: Mr Mangnall sat on a high table next to an ‘external facing’ (ie PR and Marketing) South West Water representative, and on his left, two employees in charge of storm-flow operations and data. There was no-one on the panel, it seems, who was equipped to speak strategically about the huge issues of agricultural pollution, pesticides and microplastics.
From the preamble about how he would put questions to the water company, it was clear – exactly as the promotional literature had stated – that Mr Mangnall saw himself as the question master, the host, of the show. It was the perfect visual illustration of allegiances: Conservative MP snuggled shoulder to shoulder with Marketing and PR on the stage, carefully directing questions submitted in advance, and neatly side-stepping a whopping 60 per cent of the rivers and waterways degradation issue: agricultural pollution, pesticides, destruction of natural habitats and microplastics.
I felt compelled to stand up and make an intervention after a list of classic UK government ‘stats’ were reeled off by Mr Mangnall as if he was reciting Kipling. I wanted to make it clear that I objected strongly to my elected MP presenting himself as a mere conduit for public anger at South West Water. I stated that proven weak legislation, funding cuts and failure of government strategy were also instrumental in exacerbating this crisis. I objected (see clip) to the implication that our MP seemed keen to appear divorced from any culpability in the eyes of the public.
Mr Mangnall – Are You Magnus Magnusson?
I found myself confronted by two rows of irate Conservative councillors. One inhabitant of the front row seats couldn’t seem to wait to call for the police to remove me. I stayed. Having agreed in the lively interchange of ideas that, of course, he would in fact take questions himself (a complete backtrack from the format and promotional literature), Mr Mangnall quite rightly did so, with many questions from me.
What seemed like planted questions abounded, raising local issues with little meaningful response beyond the huge job South West Water had on their hands – “but we’re making progress”. At no point was the veracity or the evidence for this assertion challenged by our MP. Magnus Magnusson he ain’t.
An almost incomprehensible question came from Conservative group leader Cllr Dave Thomas who bounced round the words ‘strategic’ and ‘operational’ as if trying to get them to stick to a wall.
At times Mr Mangnall talked about himself and the panellists as a single unit. Had he joined the ‘external facing’ arm of South West Water? He enthused over the virtues of the live map on the WaterFit website which registers discharge incidents, running through its features with a cringeworthy series of seemingly set-up lines for the panel, as if he was flogging it on a shopping channel.
The majority of the time was spent discussing the need to save water. In a crisis of massive leaks, overflows, infrastructure failure and huge shareholder outflows of cash, the over-riding need to save water through changing customer habits (ie use less!) seemed not only crass but designed to deflect attention from the more complex issues. There is no doubt that we do need to use less water – but the issues around abstraction, ecosystem degradation and quality of the water itself have reached critical mass. One member of the SWW team talked at length on how he used bricks at home in his cistern, with the same zeal as a primary school child might talk about recycling a plastic bottle, unaware that it was already on a boat to landfill in India.
I challenged Mr Mangnall about the fact that the Environment Agency’s protection budget has been cut by 56 per cent since 2010. Prosecutions are down 96 per cent on 2011. In reply, Mr Mangnall laid the blame firmly, not at the chronic funding cuts, but at the Environment Agency itself! With a straight face he stated that the problem was that the EA employed 10,000 people and just simply wasn’t efficient.
Examples of how a properly-funded Environment Agency could support prosecutions and monitor and assess incidents cropped up time and again from audience questions, but it was all neatly sidestepped by Team South West Water, featuring their new star signing, Anthony Mangnall MP. A second job awaits?
But after ‘bricks in cisterns’ and a ‘demand for efficiency’ at the overstretched and under-funded Environment Agency, the most depressing moment was saved till last.
During the meeting, Mr Mangnall kept on at South West Water to make everyone aware of their education strategy for changing public habits. I asked him what the government’s strategy for educating the public had been for water and – well – perhaps even the climate crisis? Then, at the very end came a no-doubt well-meaning suggestion from the audience that South West Water might go into schools and educate children – the “adults of tomorrow” – on using less water. The panel wholeheartedly agreed, nodding wildly at the suggestion, and it was agreed that South West Water would look into this.
And this is where I really struggle. It is all too easy to have discussions during which the real issues never actually get addressed: that’s because they’re hard, involve tough truths and accountability. No-one wants that.
It is so much easier to pass the issues on to the weakest. The most malleable. We see it on a global scale: passing our issues to other countries that are so far away and often so much poorer we don’t need to worry about come-back.
And we particularly do it with children – unconsciously and insidiously. It starts with the narrative that the climate and nature crisis is somehow dreadful because it will ‘affect our children’. And then comes the inevitably grim next step: to frighten them and guilt-trip them into acting in ways we are not prepared to act ourselves. So much easier to pressurise children into taking on the responsibilities we as adults shun.
‘Guilt-trip the children’ is a perfect summary of the abdication of responsibility our government and utility companies are engaged in – and it was the underlying message of the evening.
I am an adult. I work with adults all the time who are throwing their lives into taking on the responsibility of cleaning up this environmental mess we are in. They don’t play-act for the public. They are putting themselves out there at personal risk to shine a light on the paralysis of government action and spin.
I am an adult, and I am not afraid of facing up to my adult responsibilities to demand accountability from everyone and anyone – whatever position they hold. Because it is way past the time for the other adults in the room to take on that accountability too.
If you would like to find out more on the forthcoming Totnes South West Water event, hosted by Anthony Mangnall MP, hear the facts about government policy, or learn how to counter the spin, contact www.betterdevon.uk to book onto a free River Issues Zoom on Wednesday 19 April 6pm to 6.40pm, with the author of this article, Jim Funnell.
Free tickets to attend the Anthony Mangnall/ South West Water open meeting in Totnes are available here:
Although Mr Mangnall states questions are for South West Water to answer, you should also be entitled to submit questions to be answered by your representative MP. This is your democratic right.