UK government says water companies WILL be forced to reduce sewage dumped in rivers
By Jack Wright and Henry Martin and Mark Duell for MailOnline Published: 20:54 BST, 26 October 2021 | Updated: 22:42 BST, 26 October 2021 Ministers have performed a humiliating climbdown by promising
Water companies WILL be forced to reduce sewage dumped in rivers in humiliating government U-turn following public outcry
- Ministers perform climbdown by promising to force water companies to reduce sewage dumped in rivers
- Tories were whipped to vote down amendment to Bill that would have placed legal duties on water firms
- It led to a furious backlash this week on social media from voters, and took many Conservatives by surprise
- Earlier on Tuesday, Downing Street had defended the decision to whip against last week's amendment
- But now Environment Secretary George Eustice has promised to bolster measures by making them duty
Ministers have performed a humiliating climbdown by promising to force water companies to reduce the amount of sewage they dump in Britain's waterways.
Labour has accused ministers of conducting a U-turn in the face of public anger after Tories were whipped to vote down an amendment to the Environment Bill that would have placed legal obligations on water companies to stop polluting rivers and coastlines.
It led to a furious backlash this week on social media from environmental campaigners and voters, and took many Conservative MPs by surprise. And earlier today, Downing Street had defended the decision to whip against last week's amendment.
But now Environment Secretary George Eustice has promised to bolster measures by making them a legal duty, telling reporters: 'We've listened to the debate in Parliament [and] we will write what was already government policy into [law] to give people the reassurance they seek.'
The Government said the amendment that would be brought forward in the Commons would be 'very similar to amendment 45', which peers were debating in the House of Lords on Tuesday - a vote the Government was expected to lose.
Peers backed by 213 votes to 60, majority 153, a move to place a new legal duty on water companies to 'take all reasonable steps' to prevent sewage discharges.
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'.
Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, Luke Pollard, said Defra had been forced into the change due to 'public outcry' rather than out of care for the environment and said 'this screeching U-turn will do little to convince the public that the health of our rivers, rather than the health of Conservative polling, is at the forefront of 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. But Mr Eustice has admitted that the Government's proposed change to the Environment Bill will still result in rising household water bills.
Environment Secretary George Eustice has now promised to bolster measures by making them a legal duty. The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman had earlier today defended the decision to whip against last week's amendment
A video grab showing untreated waste pouring into Langstone Harbour in Hampshire for 49 hours
This map from The Rivers Trust shows where sewage enters local rivers. The trust advises people to avoid entering the water immediately downstream of these discharges and avoid the overflows (brown circles), especially after it has been raining
This map from Surfers Against Sewage, part of its Safer Seas and Rivers Service, tracks real-time combined sewage overflows and pollution risk forecasts, and monitors the water quality at over 400 locations around UK rivers and coastlines
What are the current laws on water companies releasing sewage into rivers and the sea?
Britain's sewer system, which is still largely Victorian, becomes unable to cope when there is too much rainwater, causing sewage works to become overwhelmed.
It is under these circumstances that water companies are permitted to release rainwater, and a smaller amount of untreated sewage, directly into rivers and the sea, to stop waste backing up in streets and homes.
But environmentalists say better infrastructure, like storage tanks at treatment works, or nature-based solutions like tree-planting, could better tackle the problem, which has become excessive.
Figures show more than 400,000 sewage 'overflows' took place into English waters last year, lasting a total of 3.1 million hours, compared to 293,000 in 2019.
The WWF has suggested that water companies are 'relying on sewer overflows to compensate for under-capacity'.
Waste water is normally released to the environment following treatment, either out to sea through long sea outfalls or coastal discharges, or into rivers.
The proposed amendment to the Government's Environment Bill had been inserted into the legislation by the House of Lords but MPs voted to remove it.
The amendment aimed to clean up rivers by placing a new duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers.
In comments to broadcasters, Mr Eustice signalled that the water sector would have five years to show progress on the matter, but that bills would have to increase to fund infrastructure improvements.
The cabinet minister said: 'We've been very clear that we want to see a reduction in these storm overflows over the next five-year period of the water pricing plan.
'That will need to be funded and will lead to some increases in water bills to fund that.'
Sewage can be pumped out of the sewerage system and into rivers through combined sewer overflows - otherwise known as a storm overflow or release valve. The overflows are designed to release excess water following heavy rain or a storm to stop sewage backing up into homes.
To stop this happening, water companies are allowed to release the rainwater and a smaller amount of untreated sewage, into the country's waterways.
The Environment Agency has reported that, in the last year, raw sewage was discharged into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times, which Defra has branded 'unacceptable'.
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.
In a statement published separately, he said Defra's announcement would see its strategy to the watchdog Ofwat about 'progressively reducing discharge of sewage from storm overflows' put 'on a statutory footing'.
Speaking in the Lords, Environment minister Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park said there was 'rightly concern' at Westminster and among the public over the 'unacceptable frequency with which sewage is discharged from storm overflows into our rivers, lakes and our seas'.
Pointing to a series of steps being taken to tackle the problem, he said claims the Government and its MPs supported the dumping of sewage into waterways was 'factually incorrect'.
But having listened to concerns, he added: 'I am absolutely delighted to confirm that the Government will bring forward an amendment in lieu in the Commons at the next stage.
'It will place a direct legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impact of storm overflows.'
While the Government could not accept the exact amendment proposed by the Duke of Wellington, the minister said: 'I can absolutely assure members the Government's amendment in lieu will deliver the same action, in reducing sewage discharges into our rivers.'
Earlier, he had singled out for strong criticism Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Adonis, who he accused of 'spreading a malicious falsehood' in social media posts about the issue.
Lord Goldsmith said: 'Over the course of dozens of tweets, he was trying to make his, let's face it not always balanced Twitter followers, believe something about me and the Government that is simply not true and which he knows to be untrue. By suggesting we were making it easier for companies to pollute our waters he was spreading a grotesque inversion of the truth.'
Arguing it was because of the peer's vehement opposition to Brexit, Lord Goldsmith added: 'He may have been driven to distraction by Brexit but he is not a stupid person, he wants his words to have consequences. In this debate on sewage, he has absolutely covered himself in the stuff and so shame on him.'
The Duke of Wellington said: 'It is unacceptable to allow the repeated and continuous discharge of sewers into rivers, lakes and coastal waters.'
He added: 'It is surely it reasonable that water companies be obliged by law to show the regulators that they are taking all reasonable steps to prevent this revolting practice, which is not acceptable in a civilised society in the 21st century.
'Particularly in a country, which is hosting next week's climate summit and which is trying to lead the world in high environmental standards.'
He was supported by Labour peer and former Navy chief Lord West of Spithead, who said: 'I have sailed and swam in UK waters for six decades. I have constantly been appalled by the amount of raw sewage I have found in those waters and it has got worse.'
Earlier, peers had inflicted defeats on the Government in again demanding steps to ensure the independence of the new eco-watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). The Lords also backed moves to gives courts enhanced remedies for when a public authority has not complied with environmental law after a notice by the OEP.
This morning Phillip Dunne, Conservative MP for Ludlow and Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was seeking a legally enforceable duty on water companies to tackle the issue. He said: 'This is going to take decades to fix, there are hundreds of thousands of kilometres of drainage pipes under our streets and across our fields, and many of them are co-mingling, surface water with foul water, and that's the root of the problem. It will take a long time and considerable resources to fix that.'
The host, Nick Robinson, said this particular case was about overflows during storms or heavy rains, not a 'deliberate policy of pumping raw sewage'.
Mr Dunne said: 'No there's no deliberate policy to do this, it's an escape mechanism, it's a release valve, if you like, when there is significant rainfall. But what the law says is that this should only be used in exceptional circumstances, and unfortunately it's become routine, which is why I think the law needs to be strengthened a bit in this area.'
Supply chain issues affect levels of sewage treatment chemicals
Wastewater plants were told by the government last month that they may dispose of sewage not fully treated due to a shortage of chemicals caused by the lorry driver crisis.
Some of the chemicals used in the sewage treatment process became one of the products left in short supply by the driver shortage, caused by a combination of Brexit and the Covid pandemic.
Plants were told they may dispose of effluent not fully treated because of disruption caused by 'supply chain failure' in a regulatory position statement issued at the start of September.
The statement came from the Environment Agency, which introduced a waiver that would allow some companies to bypass the third stage in the treatment process if they are not in possession of the right chemicals.
Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) said the waiver specifically related to a shortage of ferric sulphate, an acidic solution used to suppress the growth of algae.
The government agency said the regulatory position statement (RPS) would apply until the end of the year, after which companies would required a permit in order to continue the practice.
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.'
Several Conservative MPs have this week uploaded social media statements following a vicious backlash over the vote.
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 overflows means transforming the entire Victorian sewage system to a whole 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 huge amount to spend in an ordinary time, let alone at a time of a continuing health pandemic.
'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 aims of the amendment are in any case already delivered through measures in the Environment Bill and existing law. We in fact voted to achieve by realistic and affordable means the same end that campaigners want.'
In a full statement, he explained: 'The House of Commons adopted the majority of the Lords' Amendment 45 on Storm Overflows with the exception of lines 7-14.
'The reason for excluding these lines is that there is no real data on costs and no clarity on how to spread the costs between water companies and consumers. The immediate impact of banning storm overflows would be for raw sewage to be diverted into our streets during extreme rain events.
'This would mean transforming a system much of which has been operating since the Victorian era.'
Ann Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot, wrote: 'The issue with the Lord's amendment is that it didn't outline how to actually achieve these measures or make an assessment of the impact that implementing these new measures 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, I was deeply uneasy voting for an amendment that would deliver higher water bills for constituents, especially given that here in the South West we already have highest water bills in the UK.'
Government sources told the Guardian the information in the posts was supplied by Downing Street.
The Rivers Trust analysed Environment Agency figures and discovered that 86 per cent of England's rivers are in 'failing health', and the charity said that in more than half of these cases this was due to water companies - partly because they were pumping raw or partially-treated 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.
Commenting on footage of raw sewage being released into the rivers and seas around the country, Luke Pollard, Labour's shadow Defra secretary, said: 'People are right to be upset at the dreadful state of England's rivers.
'Not one English river is in a healthy condition and there has been zero improvements since 2016.
Phillip Dunne, Conservative MP for Ludlow and Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was seeking a legally enforceable duty on water companies to tackle the issue
A close-up of the Surfers Against Sewage map shows where swimming is advised against on a stretch of the south coast
Surfers during a protest in the water near Bournemouth Pier. The beach was one of several beauty spots along the south coast of England where human waste was spilled over the weekend
Visitors to Bournemouth beach left outraged at sewage being dumped
Visitors to one of Britain's most popular seaside spots have voiced their outrage that sewage was being dumped in the water.
One mother said she would not let her small child go in the sea at Bournemouth pier as she did not want him to get ill. There are reports that sewage was emptied into the sea at 17 Dorset beaches over the weekend, although it is believed that this has now stopped.
Alexis Cook, 38, from Hertfordshire, has brought her six year old son Leo to Bournemouth for the half term holidays.
She said: 'I read online that there was a problem with sewage but we came here to avoid it. It's a real shame because this is meant to be one of the nicest beaches in the country.
'We avoided Clapton because we heard there was sewage dumped there. I wish I'd checked all the other places it had been dumped. It's a good job my son is happy playing in the sand because he won't be going in the water now I know that. I don't want him getting ill - what with Covid and now this.'
A 43-year-old mother of three, who lives in nearby Sandbanks and was walking along the seven-mile promenade, added: 'It is very disappointing to hear that water is being pumped here. We rarely come to this end of the coast because we're in Sandbanks.
'It's absolutely horrible. If I'd have known I definitely wouldn't be letting my children swim in the water.'
A resident in nearby Christchurch took to social media to say that they saw a 'strange tinge of colour' to the water at Avon Beach.
Janine Roberjot-Ray posted: 'Went to Avon beach yesterday and saw several people swimming. A family was letting their children in on body boards, so I showed them the warning. There was a strange tinge of colour to the water. Certainly didn't look inviting.'
'The Government is to blame for allowing water companies to vent raw sewage into our rivers and sea seemingly at will.
'The Conservatives should urgently U-turn on their decision to block the Environment Bill amendment so that water companies are forced to reduce the amount of sewage they pump into our rivers and seas.
'The millions which go to shareholders do nothing to help with cleaning up our rivers and seas.
'The Tories should learn from the record and experience of the Welsh Labour government who have been able to require sustainable drainage systems to reduce the load on sewage systems and make investing to tackle future challenges a top priority.'
Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said water companies have not 'got a right to destroy these spaces'.
He told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: 'The amendment that is being called for is reasonable. We believe the water companies need to cut into dividends they make every year to restore our rivers and our coastlines.
'They haven't got a right to destroy these spaces and need to take the ambitious steps to restore them and we need to make sure the industry is not putting their profits ahead of making our spaces safe.'
It has been reported that it would cost between £150 billion and £160 billion to make waterways safer.
Defra says this work would include the complete separation of the sewerage systems which could lead to 'potentially significant disruption for homes, businesses and infrastructure across the country'.
However, they have 'made it clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority'.
Surfers Against Sewage said in a blog post last week they will continue to rally, with Mr Tagholm saying: 'In this most important of environmental decades, it's shocking that the Government recommended that MPs reject progressive and ambitious amendments that would protect water, air and nature.
'Why wouldn't they want water companies to have a legal obligation not to pollute our rivers and ocean with sewage? It beggars belief and hardly shows a commitment to be the greenest Government ever. It's time for more ambitious thinking and law that builds protected nature back into public ownership rather than leaving it to the ravages of shareholder interests.'
The Bill will go back before peers for scrutiny after the amendment was voted down.
It comes seven weeks after wastewater plants were told by the Government that they may dispose of sewage not fully treated due to a shortage of chemicals caused by the lorry driver crisis.
Just 22 Conservatives rebelled against the Government last week by voting for an amendment to the Environment Bill which sought to place a legal duty on water companies not to pump sewage into rivers.
The amendment, introduced in the House of Lords by the Duke of Wellington, would have also forced water companies and the Government to 'take all reasonable steps' to avoid using the combined sewer overflows, which regularly release untreated waste into rivers and seas.
Conservative MP Royston Smith, who voted down the amendment, told the Southern Daily Echo: 'No one wants sewage into our rivers but you can't change a system where most of it is still Victorian overnight.
'Things like illegal sewage dumping, that's a completely different thing but there does come a time when you have significant rain or flooding that the system won't cope and it will overflow and outflow into the rivers sadly.'
Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey accused Boris Johnson of 'hypocrisy on a global scale' when he hosts Cop26 summit after sewage row
Musician and environmental activist Feargal Sharkey has criticised MPs who voted against an amendment to a bill to put legal duties on water companies dumping raw sewage in rivers across the country.
It comes after MPs voted by 268 to 204 last week to disagree with the amendment to the Environment Bill tabled by the Lords.
Downing Street said on Tuesday that although it agrees with the failure of water companies putting raw sewage into England's waterways, intentions of the amendment to the bill are 'already being delivered'.
Mr Sharkey said Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be performing 'hypocrisy on a global scale' when he hosts world leaders at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow from Monday.
He said: 'In days we are about to stand on a global stage and commit hypocrisy on a global scale, lecturing about climate change when we are killing every river in this country.
'How can you stand on that stage and expect respect and credibility and lead the world into a future with less carbon when they know well you are killing some of the rarest ecosystems and strangling every river in the country?'
Mr Sharkey added that more must be done by MPs to represent the views of their constituents.
He said: 'The truth is that we're now seeing 30 years of underinvestment by our water industry. The Government has created this situation we're in. The House of Lords are more determined than last week, and are more strident to prepare the legislation.
'It is up to the MPs to decide whether they are prepared to feed the rhetoric or if they are prepared to deliver a greener environment and go out and do what is being demanded of them.'
Mr Sharkey said the Government 'misread the public' in relation to the reaction of companies dumping raw sewage into the country's waterways.
He added: 'They have utterly failed to regulate the water industry.'
Surfers Against Sewage have spoken out about accusations Government ministers have not stopped water companies from dumping raw sewage in rivers.
Hugo Tagholm, of the campaign group, said: 'We were really disappointed that MPs failed to back the amendment to put a legal duty on water companies to stop raw sewage pouring into our rivers and our oceans.'
Mr Tagholm told BBC Breakfast: 'The amendment that is being called for is reasonable.
'We believe the water companies need to cut into the dividends they make every year to restore our rivers and our coastlines.
'They haven't got a right to destroy these spaces and need to take the ambitious steps to restore them and we need to make sure the industry is not putting their profits ahead of making our spaces safe.'
A photograph of apparent sewage floating one mile off the Bognor coast taken by a paddleboarder on October 9 had been widely shared this week as social media users debated the issue - although water industry experts said the picture looks like algal bloom which is unlikely to have been 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). I can only imagine this was yesterday's breakfast!'
Water industry experts told MailOnline that the picture looks 'very much' like algal bloom, which can be caused by nitrates - with almost all nitrates reaching coastal and river waters coming from agriculture and less than 3 per cent from wastewater.
But Mr Boniface said even if it was algal bloom then it would remain 'an artefact of pollution', added: 'You get nitrates from sewage and farm run-off pollution, which goes into the sea and causes these blooms. So, from my understanding, it's from the same sort of cause.'
Campaign groups including Surfers Against Sewage said it was crucial to ensure action to tackle sewage pollution started now.
But Environment Secretary George Eustice recommended MPs reject amendments to the bill, just days before Boris Johnson hosts world leaders at the Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow.
The vote caused a huge backlash on social media, with Twitter users posting images of the MPs who shot down the amendment. One person questioned: 'What sort of person votes to allow water companies to pump raw sewage into our water?'
Another wrote: 'I just emailed me MP asking her to outline the benefits of raw sewage being dumped into our waterways.'
A government source told MailOnline: 'Tory MPs have categorically not voted to allow water companies to dump raw sewage into our rivers and seas. The provisions in the Environment Bill will deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows.
'The Environment Bill requires us to set a target to drive progress on water quality, and we are already taking significant action to address water quality more widely. Claims to the contrary are simply wrong.'
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said on Monday: 'The amount of sewage discharged by water companies into our rivers is unacceptable. We have made it crystal clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority.
'We have every confidence that the provisions in this Bill will absolutely deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows and any suggestion to the contrary is both disingenuous and untrue.'
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 led to a furious backlash this week on social media from environmental campaigners and voters
A Southern Water spokesman had told MailOnline earlier this week: 'Across the country sewer systems were built connected to surface water drains in order to protect homes from flooding.
'In heavy or intense rain the Environment Agency permits wastewater companies to release this rainfall in order to protect homes, schools and businesses from flooding and ensure customers can use their toilets, showers and washing machines 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. Some 98 per cent of our outfalls are now covered with sensors and telemetry.
'As wastewater providers catch up with our industry-leading monitoring, public awareness of storm releases is growing and there are increasing calls for the highly regulated practice to end. We support these calls and have adopted a pioneering approach.
'While simply separating all sewers from surface drains would be a hugely expensive and disruptive process, we believe that a partnership approach is the best way forward. Regulation on sustainable drainage must be changed so rainwater separation is built in to all new construction. Investment in natural capital such as enhanced and expanded wetlands will be key.
'Between 2020 and 2025 we are investing almost £2 billion on wastewater services and environmental protection. The challenge is immense. Climate change means we are seeing more and more intense rainstorms while population growth and development eats into greenfields which previously acted as soakaways for storm water
'Concrete and steel alone will not end storm releases but partnership between Southern Water and other wastewater providers and developers, NGOs, regulators and central and local government can reduce the nation's reliance 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 still needs to be done, and our recently published 21st Century Rivers report sets out ten key steps needed to achieve the radical changes we all want to see. We're calling on government to bring forward legislation in a new Rivers Act that will provide greater protection for rivers in law.
'Water companies don't have all the answers and without everyone working together, we simply won't get the radical transformation that's needed and the healthy, thriving rivers that everyone wants.'