Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Part of Environment Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour 4:30 pm, 9th November 2021

My Lords, I shall also speak to Motion C. I begin by giving my renewed congratulations and thanks to the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for all his efforts, which have not only caused the Government to concede in various ways but highlighted the issue to the wider public, so that many of our citizens who were previously unaware of the extent of sewage discharges are now very much engaged and determined to see that these large-scale problems are addressed. It is a pleasure to have been involved in the cross-party work with the noble Duke, the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates. I wish the Government had included all the elements of the noble Duke’s amendment, but I recognise some of the commitments that have been included, and which represent a considerable improvement.

I will make three brief points which I think have not been fully covered so far. The first point is about cost. There is a lot of controversy about the costs of the clean-up, and the Government’s estimates of the costs have been challenged by many people as being far too large. I hope that the Government, in determining the costs as they move forward, will consult widely—not just with the water companies but with all stakeholders and communities—particularly looking at the claims of some people who believe that much more can be done quickly and relatively more cheaply than the Government claim.

For example, the Thames tideway scheme is claimed to be able to eliminate 90% of storm overflows at a cost of £20 to £25 on London water bills a year, which is not a huge cost, given some of the figures that have been bandied around. Many individuals and environmental groups think that a substantial reduction of spills can be achieved in the short term without, for example, having to replace wholescale networks of Victorian sewers. We need to look at what can be achieved with a fairly modest increase in water bills.

Secondly, I still believe that we need improved take-up of technology by the water companies. For example, when looking at the figures on smart meters and comparing what is happening in this country with the United States, we can see the introduction of technology in a much more widespread way in the United States.

Thirdly, we need a holistic approach to particular rivers and coastal waters. It makes no sense to upgrade—as sometimes happens—one treatment works on a river but not another one just a few kilometres downstream, which means that the environment for aquatic life improves only for the distance between the two and there are no proper, fundamental effects. Within an overall approach, there must also be priorities. I believe that the chalk streams and the SSSI areas—particularly sensitive coastal areas and places where there is an effect on health—should still be very high priorities.

I share some of the frustrations expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, particularly when she talked about European battles of the past. I remember campaigning, a long time ago, and feeling ashamed that our own country was so far behind in, for example, the clean-up of waters around our beaches and coastal areas. It is very depressing that we need to once again express shame for what is happening in our rivers and coastal waters today.

In conclusion, I welcome the progress that has been made during the course of the Bill’s passage, but the issue remains a crucial one. I hope that the Government will find themselves under close scrutiny from all parties, across both Houses, to ensure that they deliver on their promises, and that we will see an end to the appalling amount of sewage discharges which have occurred in recent months and years.