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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:02 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative 12:02 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for securing this debate and for the excellent and comprehensive way that he has set the scene, listing the litany of disgraceful discharges and highlighting the prioritising of dividends, profits and shareholder interests above public safety. I have no problem with companies making profits or paying bonuses or high salaries, but not when they do so by behaving irresponsibly. I thank Surfers Against Sewage, River Action and the Rivers Trust for their helpful briefings. I will have some questions for my noble friend at the end, but I just briefly make a few, and I hope important, remarks.

Untreated human sewage is, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, being regularly discharged by water companies into rivers and coastal sea bathing waters—not just routinely but in a way that has been, for far too long, unregulated and not even properly monitored. I am pleased to see the recent changes in legislation, with water companies being required to take their obligations to avoid dumping sewage into our waters far more seriously, and the latest pronouncements from the regulator Ofwat that it will require greater investment in sewage treatment and wastewater treatment.

Noble Lords across the House can be proud of the amendments that we managed to secure in the passage of the Environment Act. I see my noble friend the Duke of Wellington in his place; he was so instrumental in driving forward the cross-party agreements. I thank my noble friend, and I thank the Government for accepting those. It is a great start, but we clearly and urgently need further action to halt this decline in water standards, both for the health of the aquatic ecosystem and, of course, to prevent poor quality water reaching our drinking water.

Indeed, the issue is also a real threat to the health of citizens or visitors who either live near, or swim in—or want to swim in—our rivers or seas. In January 2022, the Environmental Audit Committee said in its report that

“it is vital that the public can trust regulators to ensure … high levels of water quality in rivers”.

The committee also confirmed that placing a new statutory duty on water companies, to secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from their storm overflows, is a positive step. It recommended that the Government should ensure that the Environment Agency set “specific targets and timetables” for water companies’ statutory drainage and sewage management plans, and also said that Ofwat must prioritise long-term investments, such as storm overflows, in its price review process, especially championing the idea of nature-based solutions—quite right too. The actions of many of our water companies are truly shameful and investment is long overdue, with the fines for illegal sewage discharges often seen as an acceptable cost of doing business, rather than a shameful example of corporate behaviour.

I focus on the fact that it is not just human sewage disposal causing problems. A considerable element of the pollution is caused by agricultural sewage, often from factory farms whose effluent contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria, caused by the overuse of antibiotics in these farms’ intensive livestock rearing. Sewage and wastewater affect 36% of water bodies, and urban diffuse pollution affects 18%. Consequently, our rivers are now failing quality tests due to not just human sewage, but agricultural, or some element of industrial, pollution. We need to address both the human and agricultural sewage discharges. Some 26,000 tonnes of phosphorous ends up in UK waters each year, and the Environment Agency found that agricultural run-off was responsible for 40% of the damage to waterways. So even if we reduced or eliminated all the water companies’ sewage discharges, there would still be a significant problem of pollution in our waterways.

I have three questions for my noble friend. First, will the Government set an overall target for restoration of water quality in our rivers to include both human and other elements of sewage and other pollution? Will the Government accept the need to ban flushable wet wipes, which all the water companies agree are a considerable problem in causing some of these overflows? Finally, will the Government strengthen the proposed target of just a 40% reduction in agricultural pollution of our rivers by 2037?