One of the consequences that we warned against during the referendum was that one of the consequences of Brexit would be the whittling away of environmental standards which had emanated from the EU. These were not imposed on us by the perfidious foreigners. UK Governments for many years not only supported them but insisted in many cases that they were strengthened.
Ironically that really came true last week when just days before the world gathers in Scotland or COP26 the Government voted down an amendment from the House of Lords which would have strengthened environmental standards. Environmental campaigners have condemned the vote against amending a bill to stop water companies dumping raw sewage into Britain’s rivers.
The group Surfers Against Sewage have warned that swimmers along the south coast could be at risk from the pollution.
They highlighted 20 beaches along the Sussex and Hampshire coastline alone that already have a pollution risk warning in place. In fact, that vote will threaten water standards and remove Green Flags the length and breadth of the UK. This will inturn damage health and damage tourism. It takes a warped mind indeed to want to paddle through sewage and other waste products.
The surfing and other groups are trying to raise awareness of the risks after an amendment to the Environment Bill was rejected in the House of Commons.
Hugh Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “For 30 years water companies have hidden ‘continuous’ raw sewage discharges in less publicly visible places, allowing them to over-claim progress and make vast profits.
“The truth is now out. MPs must vote to make it a legal obligation for water companies to end sewage pollution.”
Just 22 Conservatives rebelled against the government last week to vote in favour of a bill amendment that would place a legal duty on water companies not to pump sewage into rivers. They joined every Lib Dem, Labour and SNP MP on an issue which will affect waterways and beaches throughout the UK. But let’s give credit to that gallant band of Tories who did defy the whip and vote against the dictates of Big Business.
The amendment, which was introduced in the House of Lords by the Duke of Wellington, would have forced water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to avoid using overflows. These sewer overflows often release untreated waste into the country’s waterways.
The bill will return to the House of Lords on Tuesday, and then potentially to the House of Commons for another vote on Wednesday.
The vote has become extremely unpopular on social media with MPs who voted against the amendment being singled out.
Football pundit Gary Lineker waded in on Monday, saying: “Controversial I know, especially given my history of defecating in public, but I’m not an enormous fan of pumping raw sewage into our seas and rivers.”
Poet Pam Ayres also published a poem on social media in support of the amendment in which she wrote, “Strange that a government/ On thrones of power seated/ Pollutes it’s joyful waterways/ With sewerage untreated.”
However, some Tories have defended their decision, saying that the addition to the bill was not practical.
Robert Courts MP, for Witney and West Oxfordshire, wrote on his website: “Section 141A sought to place a new duty on sewerage undertakers in England and Wales to demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage. Well he would say that wouldn’t he!
“This all sounds admirable, and indeed is something I support in principle. But the trouble is that the Duke of Wellington’s amendment came with no plan as to how this can be delivered and no impact assessment whatsoever.”
He said that though “some might argue that a plan is not essential” it would cost “anywhere between £150bn and £650bn” to transform the Victorian sewage system on which the water companies depend.
That may or may not be true but one way or another it does need replacing. Too much of the infrastructure of our cities and towns is now well past its sell by date. The money must be found before our water supplies are threatened and our sewage seeps onto the surface.
Many people in this country are dismayed, indeed shocked, to discover how much sewage is regularly discharged into our rivers… and it was disappointing that the House of Commons did not support the original Lords amendment passed in September.
It is absolutely right to say that discharges by water companies “can only be stopped by new infrastructure”. But all water and sewage services are now privatised. Although there are elements of strong regulation by Ofwat all companies exist to make money. Since privatisation salaries have rocketed and £57 billion has been passed to shareholders In turn much of this has gone abroad as foreign companies now own most of the water and sewage industry.
I agree with Henry Swithinbank, policy officer at Surfers Against Sewage, who said that the lack of progress was “very disappointing”. He added: “Without a legal duty not to pollute we are just using monitoring and reporting and planning to kick the can down the road.”
Well, isn’t that the Tories all over!?