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It is a great privilege to have been allocated this debate. I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister, who has been particularly hard-working today. She has spent many hours at the Dispatch Box, and even after midnight she is continuing to attend to her duties.
The subject that I want to bring to the attention of the House and, in particular, to that of the Minister is simple and straightforward, but it is proving to be a case study of a failure that is causing great anxiety to many of my constituents. That simple and straightforward proposition is: if new development is to take place, it must always be accompanied by the new infrastructure necessary to make the development work. In some respects, that is so obvious that it is impossible to imagine that development could take place without it. It would be unthinkable, for example, to build an estate that did not have access to the electricity network. As many colleagues will know, however, in many cases development adds to the demands placed on existing infrastructure without improving it. Examples of that happen all the time. Demands are placed on general practices, school places and the overall road network, but it is on sewerage and drainage services that I want to concentrate tonight.
Not only is it possible to get away with building new homes without investing in that very necessary infrastructure, but, even more unfairly, the consequences fall not solely or even mostly on the developers or the occupants of new properties, but on the rest of the community. If a GP’s surgery runs out of appointments, the local school is full, the roads are gridlocked, or—as in this case—the sewers are overflowing, existing residents are principally affected.
I want to concentrate on water because it illustrates a wider problem, because it is a pressing local issue for many of my constituents, and because many of us have lost patience with the role of Southern Water, the principal provider in my constituency.
As this is a short debate, I want to use the example of the town of Paddock Wood, but it applies almost identically to other parts of my constituency, with particular concerns in the parishes of Hawkhurst and Capel and the towns of Tunbridge Wells and Southborough and many villages as well.
The capacity of the sewerage and draining network that serves Paddock Wood is inadequate for the current population of a little over 3,250 households.
I did some research on this beforehand, and it is not just about the issue of sewerage and drainage disposal, but about access to safe drinking water, which I understand may be a problem in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Does he agree that it is important that people are able to access safe drinking water? In Northern Ireland, the onus is on Northern Ireland Water to provide a safe and accessible supply that can be accessed at any time.
The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous defender of his constituents’ interests. The fact that he is here after midnight, even on a debate on Tunbridge Wells, to fight the good fight for his constituents is a credit to him. I am giving an example of drainage and sewerage services because it is of particular importance for the reason I will give.
The town of Paddock Wood is situated in a low-lying area quite close to the River Medway that frequently floods. When it does so, the overload of the current network has unacceptable, unhealthy and frankly disgusting consequences for residents.
One of my constituents, who lives on an estate near the centre of the town, described how for 10 years her front garden has been regularly flooded with water containing sewage, toilet paper and other waste, coming up from a manhole cover in the middle of the road outside her property. A resident in a different part of town described how he and his neighbours have submitted complaints time and again about sewage and toilet paper being washed out into their road.
Paddock Wood Town Council and the local borough and county councillors, to whom I pay tribute for their tenacity over the years, have highlighted the problem, demanding that it is addressed and warning of the obvious need for investment in greater capacity.
Southern Water has admitted that the infrastructure needs upgrading before any additional demands on it can be contemplated. In 2015 Southern Water told me in a letter:
“There is current inadequate capacity for any future developments.”
This followed a capacity check carried out by the company in 2014, which established the need for:
“General upgrades to sections of the Southern Water public sewer network” and
“a requirement to increase the capacity of the Station Road wastewater pumping station by approximately 8%.”
Indeed the company’s then chief executive wrote to me, saying:
“It will be our recommendation that the pumping station be upsized before any further properties are built in this area.”
Paddock Wood is now subject to plans for at least an additional 1,000 homes across three major developments, on top of the 3,250 homes already there. Initially, Southern Water’s advice to planners was consistent with its previous statements that the local network was at capacity. On two of the sites—300 dwellings at Church Farm and 375 at Mascalls Court Farm—the borough council informed me that
“additional off site sewers or improvements to existing sewers will be required and these details have to be agreed with Southern Water.”
At Church Farm, Southern said:
“We advised the developer that they need to install a parallel storage sewer to cater for additional flows…We will install the sewer under section 98 regulations, which will be funded in part by developer contributions.”
However, as housing development has proceeded in Paddock Wood the promised infrastructure investment has not appeared. Indeed the current chief executive of the company wrote to me in 2017 to say:
“I can confirm that we are not currently in receipt of a valid section 98 application for any of the proposed sites in Paddock Wood.”
The company said:
“We have a legal obligation to connect new developments to the sewerage system and are not in a position to formally object to plans for development.”
Moreover, Southern has written to the council to say that new sites can commence development without the necessary improvements that it had identified as being needed.
Plans to upgrade the sewerage network in Paddock Wood, despite repeated discussions with Paddock Wood Town Council, have come to nothing. Residents of Paddock Wood now see development happening that they were assured would take place only when the sewerage system had been upgraded to deal with the current overuse and problems and to remove the worsening of that situation, let alone to cope with the planned development.
I met representatives of Southern Water, members of Paddock Wood Town Council, and officers and members of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and Kent County Council on
In the meantime, new homes are being built and connected to a sewerage system that is already so inadequate that it results in sewage flowing through the streets and the flooding of existing properties. Enough is enough. The people of Paddock Wood are not nimbys opposing all development; quite the opposite. In fact the town has, without fuss, accommodated more new development compared with its size than most other towns in the south-east of England. It is perfectly reasonable to demand that, in doing so, residents should not be taken for granted or taken for a ride.
I have focused on the town of Paddock Wood this evening, given that this is a short debate, but a sense of distrust and, in my view, justified scepticism also applies to Hawkhurst, Hawkenbury, Capel, Tunbridge Wells, Southborough and many other communities in my constituency. My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, wanted me to make mention of the fact that many of his communities are also affected by pretty much identical problems. My constituents are not surprised that the company was this year fined the record sum of £126 million for failures including a lack of necessary investment. The saga of Paddock Wood leads local residents to endorse the verdict of the chief executive of the water regulator, Ofwat, who has stated:
“The company is being run with scant regard for its responsibilities to society and to the environment.”
I would therefore like to ask the Minister three things. First, will she intervene to insist that Southern Water present comprehensive infrastructure plans without further delay to the community of Paddock Wood and others in my constituency where development is being considered, and that it implement those plans? Secondly, will she strengthen the powers of local councils to require water companies to make an assessment of the infrastructure needs, and not to approve new development until it is certain that the infrastructure will be provided before or at the same time as the development? Thirdly, will she accept that if we as a nation are to support development, whether it is in the town or the countryside, commercial or residential, the rules should be established and acted upon, and that there is always I before E: infrastructure before expansion?
If we do these things, we can look forward to a future in which new development is seen not as something that is bound to make existing residents’ lives worse, but as something that offers the prospect of improvements to the quality of life for everyone in the locality. My constituents want that assurance. They want action, and they want to see it now.
It is late, but I think we are all still very focused on this issue, which is a tricky one. To be talking about sewage at this time of night is really focusing the mind. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Greg Clark on securing this debate concerning Southern Water and the issues he is facing in his constituency. He is a strong spokesman for his local area, and rightly so. I just want to touch on this whole issue because we are talking about water and a water company, and water is so important in our lives. It plays an important role in our 25-year environment plan and there is a whole section on water in the Environment Bill, which had its successful Second Reading in this Chamber earlier tonight. Some of the things in the Bill will touch on issues raised by my right hon. Friend.
The Government recognise the need to secure long-term water supplies due to climate change and our growing population, so we expect the water industry to take more action in several areas, such as reducing demand for water alongside investing to increase water supplies. The industry also needs to take action on sewerage infrastructure. We recently consulted on a range of measures to reduce personal water usage, including a call for evidence. The need for investment in infrastructure is well set out in the draft national policy statement for water resources infrastructure. I am concerned, however, about the quality of the water environment, and there is more to be done. In the case of some water companies, a great deal more needs to be done.
Last week, the Environment Agency launched a consultation on how we protect and improve the water environment. The “Challenges and Choices” consultation explores how we can work together to manage our waters and deliver significant improvements to water bodies in England in the face of increasing pressures, one of which is housing and the growing population. Given such challenges, the Government want a water sector that delivers more for the customer and the environment. The Government and regulators are challenging the sector to improve its environmental performance, put customers at the heart of the business, and restore trust in the sector. I believe that my right hon. Friend actually used the word “trust” in his powerful speech.
Companies are responding to the challenge and have put forward proposals in their business plans committing to improve performance and offer bill reductions to customers, but there is much more to be done. For example, too much water simply leaks from the system, and significant investment is needed to improve the resilience of our water supplies and to improve service and environmental standards. In July, as my right hon. Friend might remember, the previous Environment Secretary called a meeting with all the water company chief executives to hold them to account over their performance towards customers and the environment. It was quite a groundbreaking moment that received a lot of coverage because he was quite ferocious with the companies.
Several companies, including Southern Water, had recently been assessed by the Environment Agency as demonstrating unacceptable levels of environmental performance. Companies were also challenged over customer service and leakage performance. As a relatively new Environment Minister, I am now working with regulators to put pressure on water companies to do more to increase resilience, enhance the environment and provide customers with value for money.
Water, as we all know, is a really precious commodity, and it needs to be treated as such. I want to be clear that Government and regulators are committed to taking action and holding water companies to account for their poor performance. Earlier this month, Ofwat issued a penalty against Southern Water of £126 million due to serious failures in the operation of sewage treatment works and for deliberately misreporting performance information. This was the largest enforcement action ever taken by Ofwat and resulted in a £3 million financial penalty and £123 million in rebates to be paid out to customers over the next five years.
I am pleased that Southern Water has made commitments to be more open and transparent about its performance with respect to the environment, and there have been changes in management personnel at the company. Additionally, Southern Water has now committed to reduce pollution incidents by 41% by 2025, along with reducing supply interruptions by 51%. The Environment Agency has set out ambitious measures in the water industry national environment programme, which will result in £4.4 billion of investment by water companies in the natural environment between 2020 and 2025, and £547 million of that investment relates to Southern Water. I am optimistic that that will help to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the water environment, from the spread of invasive species to flow affected by chemicals and nutrient pollution. It is imperative that we clean up our water and, as Environment Minister, I want to see improvements.
To help to prevent sewage flooding incidents such as those that my right hon. Friend mentioned in his constituency, water and sewerage companies have a number of duties in relation to drainage, wastewater and sewerage, including a duty to effectually drain within their areas of operation. Drainage and wastewater infrastructure must be better prepared for extreme rainfall events to reduce the risk of overloaded sewers flooding homes or overflowing into rivers and the sea, which is simply unacceptable—my right hon. Friend referred to some incidents where that happened. I am committed to ensuring that water companies are making those preparations. That is why the Environment Bill contains a measure to place drainage and wastewater planning on a statutory footing, because whereas the water that comes out of our taps has previously been dealt with on a statutory footing, interestingly, sewage has not and has instead been dealt with through a voluntary arrangement. I am optimistic that that will be a strong feature of the Environment Bill, which we have talked about tonight.
That measure will ensure that sewerage companies fully assess their wastewater network capacity and develop collaborative solutions with local authorities and other bodies responsible for parts of the drainage system. That will be in addition to the statutory plans that companies already publish on managing long-term water supplies. South East Water, the water supplier for Tunbridge Wells, recently agreed and published its plan. I expect Southern Water to work collaboratively with South East Water to ensure that their plans align. Again, the Environment Bill contains measures on getting water companies to work together much more collaboratively, so that their plans overlap, whether they share the same boundaries or whether, as in this instance, one has the water coming out of the tap and the other deals with what goes down the loo. There will be a duty to work together much more closely on those issues.
The Government have also published a surface water management action plan, which sets out the steps we are taking with the Environment Agency and others to manage the risk of surface water flooding. The plan sets out 22 actions to improve our understanding of the risks of flooding and strengthen delivery. Key actions include making sure that infrastructure is resilient—something that I think my right hon. Friend was getting at—joining up planning for surface water management and building local authority capacity. One of the actions in the plan is to make drainage and wastewater management plans, and that is now in the Environment Bill. Ofwat has recommended that water companies should already have started their action plans, so Southern Water should be starting to formulate its plan. In addition, the autumn Budget allocated £13 million to tackle risks from floods and climate change at the national level. Local authorities have the opportunity to bid for some of that funding to address local needs.
My right hon. Friend also talked about new housing developments and the pressure that they can put on drainage systems. I fully understand—because he painted such a clear, if ghastly picture—what he said about the situation in Paddock Wood and the new housing there and in surrounding areas. I have a great deal of sympathy with those who have had to experience these sewage events. As a slight aside, Southern Water does not have a good record of responding to complaints either—indeed, it has a very poor record—and I imagine that a lot of those affected will have made complaints.
The national planning policy framework was revised in July 2018 and stated that sustainable drainage systems—SuDS, which I am a fan of—should be given priority in new developments in flood risk areas. The NPPF strengthened existing policy to make clear the expectation that SuDS are to be provided in all new major developments, unless demonstrated to be inappropriate. Local flood authorities must also be consulted on surface water drainage considerations in planning applications for all major new developments. This really ought to go some way to address issues raised by my right hon. Friend. Water companies should be consulted on these planning applications, and the plans should be rejected where it is thought that the infrastructure really is not suitable. Water companies will charge new developments for connection to the sewerage systems, so they have that right to charge where they think we need more connections, and they should use this money to pay for any upgrades.
The economic regulator Ofwat is currently in the final stages of its price review process with the water companies. Ofwat has pushed Southern Water to improve its performance, make efficiency savings and reduce bills. I support Ofwat in its work with Southern Water to help it to bring its business plan up to standard. Without a doubt, evidence highlights that the performance of Southern Water has left a great deal to be desired. If improvements are not forthcoming, I shall be requesting a meeting with Southern Water. I believe my right hon. Friend asked whether I would step in and take some serious action, and I shall be doing that and asking some serious questions.
I am grateful for the commitment that my hon. Friend has given to take action. Will she agree to meet me, and perhaps some of the residents in my constituency, to discuss the response to her meeting with Southern Water, so that we can make an assessment of whether things are heading in the right direction?
Of course I will meet my right hon. Friend. We want water companies that are working effectively and efficiently, and we need to understand the pressures they are under and how to deliver for all new houses. We are committed to building new houses as a Government. We need new houses, but they need to function properly, with the right infrastructure, so of course I will meet him.
In conclusion, we want to see a water industry that puts customers at the heart of the business, contributes to communities, and protects and enhances our precious natural environment. I will continue to push the sector and hold water companies, such as Southern Water in this case, to account if necessary.
Question put and agreed to.