Sewage Pollution: Whitburn

– in the House of Commons at 6:47 pm on 27th October 2021.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 6:57 pm, 27th October 2021

My constituent Mr Latimer has been raising concerns about raw sewage dumping at the Whitburn end of Seaburn beach and into the North sea for two decades. In October 2012, before I was his MP, the European Court of Justice found that raw sewage was being dumped at this location and that the United Kingdom had failed to fulfil its obligations and breached standards for treating wastewater.

In 2020, eight years later, the ECJ found again that the levels of sewage dumping at Whitburn continued to breach standards. As the sewage flows, our gorgeous beach is continually damaged. The wildlife and sea life that once inhabited our rock pools is disappearing. Dolphins and seals, regulars on our coastline, now swim through sewage soup and the seagrass meadows in the nearby River Tyne estuary are being ruined.

Mr Latimer is now supported by the Whitburn residents forum, and nearly 1,000 residents have signed our petition to stop this sewage dumping. In the nine years that I have been the MP for South Shields and part of this campaign, I have seen us stonewalled by various Departments, bodies, companies, Secretaries of State and Ministers who claim this sewage dumping is a figment of our imagination. It is not. We know that, because we live there.

We all know that this Government are not really committed to protecting our water and seas after their shameful behaviour last week, voting in favour of sewage dumping into our waterways and oceans. The Minister claimed that this was due to costs of up to £660 billion associated with upgrading our sewers—costs that today have been discounted via a leaked report from the storm overflows taskforce, which found that the actual costs, spread over 10 years, would be £21.7 billion. I am aware that the Minister was concerned that the cost would fall to consumers, but since the industry has paid its shareholders in excess of £50 billion over the last three decades, it would make sense for the water companies to meet the costs.

This week’s U-turn on the matter will not fool anyone. It is a disingenuous attempt to appease the public. If the Government really did care about sewage dumping, why have they sat back while knowing that Whitburn is continually being blighted—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 7:00 pm, 27th October 2021

After the judgment in 2012, the UK was given five years to correct the situation. The correctional work was completed by the end of December 2017. In those years, I continued to correspond with various Secretaries of State regarding my constituents’ concerns and requests for information. I was advised that Mr Latimer’s requests, via me, had become repetitive and created an unreasonable burden on the resources of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. It was then decided that no further requests or queries would be responded to. Of course the requests have been repetitive; it is because answers and solutions have never been forthcoming.

In January 2019, our hardworking and effective MEP, Jude Kirton-Darling, raised the matter again with the European Parliament. Guess what? It found that the UK was still in breach, and sewage continued to harm our beach at Whitburn and our sea life. It asked yet again that the United Kingdom fully comply with the 2012 ruling and explain what action it intended on taking within two months. It appears that the Government never bothered replying and never took steps to halt the sewage discharges.

In early 2020, I raised the matter yet again with yet another Secretary of State, eight years after the initial request to rectify the problem. I was advised that DEFRA does not believe there are problems with the sewage system at Whitburn and that the beach was classified as “Excellent”. Now, everything in South Shields is excellent, but that definitely does not mean that sewage is not being dumped on that beach. By October 2020, a further letter from the EU confirmed that new evidence showed that, both in terms of frequency and quantity, dumping levels continued to be breached, reaching almost 53 tonnes of sewage in the first six months of the year. As a result, it also confirmed that it was commencing infringement proceedings.

And so it went on, with more meetings and more correspondence. The Environment Agency, Northumbrian Water and the Government all dispute the findings. It is a bureaucratic nightmare, where everyone has a different version of the levels of sewage being dumped, everyone continues to claim that it is not up to them to sort it out, and no one seems able to provide any update at all on the infringement proceedings. I, my team and my constituents are exhausted and angry. This obstinance has to stop. I cannot imagine the cost to the public purse of these years of avoidance. We—the people who actually live in South Shields and use Whitburn beach—know that sewage is being dumped there. We see the damage that it is doing to our coastline.

In the Environment Bill debate last week, the Minister said:

“The Government are absolutely committed to reducing sewage in our water. Nobody thinks sewage in water is a good idea, and I hope we have demonstrated that we have been very strong on that.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2021; Vol. 701, c. 865.]

Today I am pleading with the Minister to do once and for all what her predecessors have refused to, and outline what steps she is going to take to clean up our beach. That is the only way truly to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to and strength on this matter.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:03 pm, 27th October 2021

It is a pleasure, as ever, Madam Deputy Speaker, to see you in the Chair. I thank Mrs Lewell-Buck for securing this debate on sewage pollution. Sewage is obviously quite a topic this week. I do not know whether securing this debate was a coincidence, but it is certainly the subject in which we have all been much immersed. Water quality is a Government priority and it has been one of my personal priorities since becoming the Environment Minister.

I want to get something very clear at the outset, as there were some somewhat aggressive comments right at the beginning of the hon. Member’s speech. This Government are totally committed to protecting the environment—that is why we are bringing forward the Environment Bill, a landmark piece of legislation—and totally committed to protecting our seas. Spurious comments made about the Government voting to allow raw sewage into the sea are completely inaccurate, as has now been pointed out on many fronts.

A really aggressive social media campaign is being run on this, to the detriment of many MPs, including death threats. We all need to act with a little more kindness and respect in this Chamber. We voted for six pages of measures in the Environment Bill when I was here last week at the Dispatch Box, and they are all things that will prevent raw sewage from going into the sea.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

I would like to correct some of the Minister’s points. I was not aggressive; I was stating facts. I am very disappointed that people have had death threats, and of course I would not condone that. I was simply relaying facts and what happened in last week’s votes. If the Government were confident about last week’s votes, why on earth have they U-turned?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Member for that. There has been no U-turn whatever. As I said, we have six pages of clauses in the Environment Bill committing to reducing sewage in our watercourses, all with essential steps that we have to take in order to fully tackle this whole issue. We have now announced a legal duty on water companies to take action to reduce harm from overflows. I am going to outline all the overall measures that we are dedicated to in this Government. There has been no U-turn whatever. Again, that is spurious spinning of the facts. I want to get that on the record.

I will talk a little about the sewer systems, to get all that clear. Many of our sewer systems are combined systems where sewage is combined with rainwater. During and after heavy and prolonged rain, the capacity of combined sewer systems can be exceeded. Storm overflows were a design feature of the Victorian sewers. They act as a release valve to discharge excess sewage in rainwater into the rivers and the sea if the capacity of the sewage system is exceeded. This protects properties from flooding and from sewage backing up in these kinds of extreme weather. Historically, they were designed only to be used in very infrequent, exceptional weather, but water companies are now relying on them far too often. Water companies have failed to adequately reduce sewage discharges. That is unacceptable, and I have said so unequivocally. That is why we are taking action, particularly through the Environment Bill.

I want to lay out the sources of pollution that we are dealing with in our rivers and marine spaces. The largest contributor to water pollution is agriculture—that is, 40% of pollution—and the water industry accounts for 36% of water pollution. Of that, a fifth is from the storm sewage overflows, but four fifths is from water that is already treated in treatment works and goes into the river. A lot of that contains too much phosphate, for example, which is one of the things polluting our rivers. That is just to get this into perspective.

Clearly, action is necessary to tackle the issue on all fronts. That is why we are asking the water industry to do so much more on the environment. However, I want to put on the record that investment in this area since privatisation has been over £30 billion, so the water industry has actually invested a lot of money since 1990. Some £3.1 billion is being invested in storm overflows between 2020 and 2025. But to tackle the increasing pressures on our water environment, we really do need to do more. Reducing the frequency of the use of the storm sewage discharges is really important. On those grounds, I recently set up the storm overflow taskforce, which was tasked with a whole lot of assessments but also reporting back on what the cost of total elimination of the storm overflow outflows would be, as well as on a range of other combinations in reducing their use.

I want to take issue again with the stats. Nobody gave spurious statistics about this. The taskforce’s report is shortly to be published. I will share some stats with the hon. Member as she raised the issue and we need to get the record straight on that as well.

To reduce these overflows to zero, the taskforce has come back after much research to say that the cost would be between £150 billion and £300 billion. That would be done through increasing the size of the infrastructure, but there would still probably be some use of the overflows if we have massive storms. If we then wanted to completely separate our system so that we had one pipe for rainwater and one pipe for sewage, the taskforce estimate, after much research, that that would cost between £350 billion and £600 billion. The hon. Lady will be able to see that data clearly published, potentially tomorrow. We are happy to share that data with her just to get that really clear.

I have referred to some of the other measures that we are implementing to show we are determined as a Government to tackle the issue. We have set a new set of strategic priorities for the industry’s regulator, Ofwat. It is the first time any Government have set the direction in which water companies must take steps to significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows. The regulator should ensure that funding should be approved to let the water companies do that. That is a really important point. As the Environment Secretary set out yesterday, we will now put that instruction on a firm legal footing. So no U-turns have occurred; this work was all in train. That direction will be enshrined in law.

I will just look in detail at the comprehensive measures we already voted for last week in the Environment Bill, which demonstrate we mean business on tackling storm sewage overflows. Together with the legal duty, the direction to Ofwat and the targets that will be set on water quality, the Bill will make a significant difference. Last week, on 20 October, the Government put forward six pages of new law on this issue, of which the hon. Member should be completely aware. Just in case she is not, I will run through what those things were.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

The Minister is being very generous. I am fully aware of what is in the Environment Bill. This debate this evening is about a particular issue that has been ongoing in my constituency for more than 20 years. I was hoping that the Minister would come here tonight to discuss that, not what the Government are going to do in the future. She is already aware of the problems at Whitburn; we have corresponded about it repeatedly. I would like to know what action will be taken for me and my constituents, because this problem is ruining our beach and has been for decades.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very well aware of that, but it was the hon. Member who started on all these other, much wider areas, so I thought I would set the record straight. The point is—I will get to her area—that all these measures should and will make a difference in her area. That is the point.

There is a duty on the Government to publish a plan before September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows, a duty on the Government to report to Parliament on implementing the plan, a duty on water companies to publish data on the storm overflow operation on an annual basis, and a duty on the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflows from water companies.

Further amendments set clear objectives, such as a duty on water companies to report discharges occurring and ceasing in near real-time—within an hour. That should really help in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and she should be on that to make sure it happens. There is also a duty on water companies to put gadgetry up and downstream of the outflows to monitor them. Again, that will genuinely help if there is still a problem in her area.

We are looking at schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 on sustainable urban drainage and we are bringing in sewerage management plans. The water company in the hon. Lady’s area, like every water company, will now have to produce drainage and sewerage management plans so we can clearly see their power of direction and how they will reduce the use of storm overflows.

I now turn to the bit the hon. Lady has been waiting for on Whitburn. I hear what she said. My intelligence tells me that a great deal of work has been done in her area to intercept storm overflows and decrease the frequency of the discharges. I believe there is an out-to-sea discharge that is 1.5 km out.

The sewage interceptor scheme that protects the bathing waters that the hon. Lady mentioned was completed in 2017, as she said, at a cost of £10 million. The idea was to tackle any sewage discharges. The scheme includes a combination of storm water storage, removing surface water in sewers, and sustainable urban drainage systems—including, interestingly, rainwater gardens at some local schools. The stats tell us that the bathing waters have continued to receive excellent quality status, which is what we want for our bathing waters.

The stats and the intelligence that the hon. Lady has recounted tonight are contrary to the data that I have. On those grounds, I would be very happy to meet her to look at what she is saying. I am the Environment Minister and I care about water quality, so I am genuinely slightly mortified to hear that different data. Clearly, a lot of parties are involved and she seems to have engaged with many of them. I am happy to meet her, as I will any Member of Parliament who comes to me with any environmental issue that I think is not right. I will leave it there.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.