Sewage Disposal in Rivers and Coastal Waters - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:49 am on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat 11:49 am, 7th July 2022

My Lords, in opening this debate I pay tribute to those who have done so much to highlight the scandal of raw sewage discharges into our lakes and rivers and on to our beaches, particularly Feargal Sharkey, whose tireless campaigning, alongside thousands of people up and down our country, has kept the issue in the headlines and the pressure on the water companies and the Government.

I also acknowledge the role of the national and local media in bringing these issues to public attention, the efforts of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and Peers from across the House, and their leadership on this issue during the debates on the Environment Act and subsequently. Most of all, I pay heartfelt tribute to my late and greatly missed noble friend Lord Chidgey, whose passionate advocacy for the protection of our precious chalk streams was an inspiration to me and to so many others.

I suppose that we cannot blame colleagues if they are somewhat distracted from today’s debate by the farcical Conservative psychodrama playing out up the road in Downing Street. Some may feel that it could not be more appropriate that we are discussing the subject of sewage disposal today. Certainly, it is instructive to note that in the scandal of our polluted waterways also lies the story of a failure of leadership of both government and corporations—a story in which private interests have been put ahead of the public interest, and institutional failure has led to a collapse in public confidence.

The scale of the sewage crisis afflicting our rivers and coastal waterways is staggering to comprehend. In 2021, the water companies were responsible for 368,966 spills, during which raw sewage and untreated wastewater was dumped into aquatic environments for a total of 2,650,290 hours. Even those staggering figures are an underestimate, because over a quarter of storm overflows had no monitors or monitors that were faulty or non-functioning.

This is having a devastating impact on nature. England is home to 85% of the earth’s chalk streams—rare and precious habitats that the Government and water companies should surely recognise they have a particular duty to protect. Instead, they are allowing them to be devastated by raw sewage outflows. My late noble friend Lord Chidgey raised this issue during our scrutiny of the Environment Act, highlighting

“the deterioration of our chalk streams through appalling neglect, to the extent that many see streams’ diverse ecosystems under severe threat to their very survival.”—[Official Report, 13/9/21; col. 1193.]

He talked about his work with organisations across the south-east of England, and from Hertfordshire to the north to Kent in the east and Dorset in the west. These organisations represent thousands of people who are all deeply concerned about the threats to our unique chalk streams.

I am lucky enough to live about a mile away from the Hogsmill river, one of those rare and precious chalk streams in south-west London. On 26 May last year, Judge Francis Sheridan fined Thames Water £4 million for what he described as the “utterly disgusting” pollution caused by Thames Water when untreated sewage was discharged into the Hogsmill river and a local park. The discharge occurred because of a night-time power failure at the local sewage works. Over a period of five hours almost 50 alarms went off, which should have immediately led to an engineer being sent to the treatment works to fix the problem—but every one of those alarms went unchecked and ignored. As a result, 79 million litres of sludge escaped, which took 30 people over a month to clean up and caused huge damage to local wildlife and much distress to the local community,

Although the power failure may not have been the water company’s fault, the lack of investment in back-up generation and the company’s failure to respond to the alarms most certainly was. The judge in this case was no stranger to Thames Water’s record of polluting waterways. Earlier in 2021, he fined it £2.3 million for equipment failures at a sewage treatment plant in Oxfordshire in 2016, which killed thousands of fish and other water life. Four years earlier, Thames Water was prosecuted for illegally allowing huge amounts of untreated sewage to enter the Thames in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in 2013 and 2014. Judge Sheridan found that Thames Water had demonstrated

“a continual failure to report incidents”,

which he described as

“a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs”.

Although the judge imposed a record-breaking £20 million fine, this represented just two weeks of Thames Water’s profits at the time.

Of course, Thames Water is not alone in discharging raw sewage into our rivers and coastal waters. Every water company does it, and indeed much of the huge volume of untreated wastewater and raw sewage that they discharge is done so perfectly legally, despite its devastating impact on the environment. As the summer holidays approach and people head to the beach, parents will be horrified to learn of the level of discharges into our coastal waters. Last year, the water companies were collectively responsible for 24,822 spills into the sea over a period of 161,623 hours, including one spill on to Ilfracombe Wildersmouth beach by South West Water that lasted 1,883 hours, and a spill by United Utilities at Morecambe that lasted a breathtaking 5,352 hours.

Of course, many contributing factors and actors have led to this appalling state of affairs in both coastal and inland waters, but the water companies cannot escape their central share of the blame. Their failure to invest sufficiently in reducing these outflows comes at the same time as having paid eye-watering sums in pay and bonuses to their senior executives. Anglian Water, responsible for 21,351 spills lasting a total of 194,594 hours in 2021, provided a total remuneration package to its chief executive of more than £2 million—nearly 100 times the pay of one of its meter technicians. Northumbrian Water, responsible for 220,560 hours of discharges, provided more modest remuneration—a mere £628,000—but this was still more than 20 times the starting salary of one of its wastewater production operators. Severn Trent, responsible for 461,135 hours of discharges, provided remuneration of more than £2.8 million to its CEO—again, more than 100 times the starting salary of one of its water treatment operatives. Southern Water: 160,984 hours of discharges; remuneration to CEO, more than £1 million. South West Water: 351,875 hours of discharges; remuneration to CEO, £863,000. Thames Water: 163,000 hours of discharges; remuneration to CEO, £1.2 million. United Utilities, responsible for 540,000 hours of discharges, including that 5,000-hour spill at Morecambe: remuneration to CEO, £2.9 million—112 times the pay of one of its process operators. Wessex Water: 151,258 hours of discharges; CEO remuneration, £520,000. Finally, Yorkshire Water: 406,000 hours of discharges; total remuneration for the CEO, more than £1.3 million.

In total, water company executives have paid themselves nearly £27 million in bonuses over the past two years, while pumping sewage into waterways 1,000 times a day. The greed is gobsmacking, the multiples of their salary over that of crucial employees shocking, and the disparity between their renumeration and performance regarding our natural environment utterly staggering. By way of comparison, the chief executive of NHS England is paid somewhere in the region of £260,000 to run an organisation with a turnover in excess of £130 billion. The largest of these water companies, by contrast, has a total annual revenue of around £2 billion. This is of course part of a much wider scandal of excessive corporate pay and ever-increasing pay differentials between top executives and the staff they employ. It is particularly jarring that such rewards are being provided at companies that daily pollute our rivers and marine environment.

At the heart of this scandal is not only a failure of leadership in the private sector, but a failure of government. The institutions charged with enforcing environmental protection go underresourced and targets for improvements are unambitious—and all the while developers continue to have a legal right to connect wastewater to the system, regardless of its constraints, instead of the Government imposing tough requirements on sustainable urban drainage. The Government need to get a grip and they should start by showing a red card to water company bosses and adopting Liberal Democrat plans for a sewage bonus ban, which would stop water company executives being paid a penny in bonuses until our waterways are protected from sewage dumps.

The public have had enough of their rivers, lakes and coastal waters being despoiled by a mixture of government inaction, regulatory failure and corporate irresponsibility and greed. It is well past time for the Government and their agencies to act decisively and bring an end to this sewage scandal.