Ofwat: Strategic Priorities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:13 pm on 9th June 2022.

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Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:13 pm, 9th June 2022

I sincerely thank Philip Dunne for all the work that he has done on this issue. He has done so as Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I, too, served, spending much of my early years here with him on the Committee—in fact, today marks the fifth anniversary since I was elected—through his private Member’s Bill and through his significant campaigning on issues of sewage. He opened the debate in his typically stylish way.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate—a Committee on which I also served as a Back Bencher. I know the vital role that it plays in allowing important subjects to be aired in the House. I also thank all the Members who have taken part in this last piece of parliamentary business this week.

We have had a broad range of excellent contributions. Sir Charles Walker is a doughty defender of anglers and the need for clean water for angling. He will be pleased to hear that I have met the Angling Trust. My hon. Friend Luke Pollard, whom I was with in Plymouth just last week, called for greater accountability on the SPS and the need for more powers at Ofwat, and his points were well made. He is right about the lack of a clear plan for decarbonisation and nature restoration, and I commend him on his ambitious campaign to get Devil’s Point designated an official bathing water spot. Maybe one day I will be able to bathe in it with him. [Interruption.] In wetsuits—I hope people will not read too much into that.

Felicity Buchan made an important contribution on flooding, which, due to climate change, will be ever more frequent unless more action is taken, especially on upland catchments. My hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury gave an account of Mogden sewage treatment works discharging into the Duke of Northumberland’s river—one of too many such horrific events.

Anna Firth made a good point about the need to ban wet wipes. We already had a Bill that my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson attempted to get through the House, and hopefully we will see it come back to this place again. Danny Kruger made a good point about nature-based solutions; I saw a similar project to the one he described on a reed bed in Norfolk by Anglian Water and Norfolk Rivers Trust, and we need to see many more of them. David Johnston made a good point about new housing creating huge strain on the infrastructure dealing with sewage.

The fact is that our rivers are dirty. They have been dirty for too long, and they have got dirtier. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we need them cleaned up. The Victorian sewage system was implemented because the Thames had become so toxic that the Prime Minister of the time, Benjamin Disraeli, could no longer stand to be in the Chamber during the “Great Stink” of 1858. He said the Thames had become,

“a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”.

Outside Parliament now, the heirs of Bazalgette are creating the super sewer, which will reduce sewage overflow into the Thames in central and east London—although not in west London past Hammersmith, a point my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth made. However, it is the only such project in the UK. When the House passed a motion declaring an environment and climate emergency three years ago, that should have challenged the water industry and the Government to undertake radical change. We can no longer accept being the dirty man of Europe.

It is fair to say that the Government have started to move on this, although they have been brought to it reluctantly, and in no small part due to campaigning of the right hon. Member for Ludlow and the screeching public outrage when Conservative MPs were whipped to vote against an amendment calling for the end of raw sewage discharges. We need more power in the hands of consumers so that they can understand what is happening in their communities.

Let us recap the water industry numbers so that we can see where there is space in the system for solutions. The water companies in England collectively invested £1 billion less in real terms last year than they did in 1991. In the past 11 years they have added £19 billion in dividends to shareholders. That is the financial leakage.

Then there is the water leakage, with 229,000 litres in 2021 and, as we know, hundreds of thousands of sewage dumping events. In 2020, there were just shy of 400,000. In the same year, the average household in England saw £62 of their bills go as dividend. Daisy Cooper made a good point about water company bosses receiving bonuses while those dumping events take place.