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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:37 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 12:37 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for procuring this debate. I totally agree with him that the discharge of sewage into our rivers is a disgrace in the 21st century; it should not be happening. It was not the intention when we privatised water, and I declare my interest as the Minister for Water at the time. I say to the right reverend Prelate that I am sorry that we are in the state that we are but I assure him that the investment in water, clean drinking water and pipe renewal has increased incredibly because of privatisation, and I dread to think what the situation would be if it were still in the hands of the taxpayer and we did not have access to that private finance.

I am a little surprised by the timing of this debate because a lot has happened in the last two years and it seemed to me that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, was really speaking about the situation two years ago. He mentioned the Environment Act, and I did not come here to defend water companies or the Government, but I think it is time to put a little perspective into this. The Environment Act was improved hugely in your Lordships’ House; I was glad to be part of the group that secured that change. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, did not talk about the Storm Overflows Taskforce that has been set up. He did not mention that, under the Environment Act, by 1 September the Government have to produce a storm overflows discharge reduction plan, so I would have welcomed this debate after the Summer Recess—after 1 September. I need to ask my noble friend: are the Government on time to produce this report by 1 September? In that report, we will be looking for a step change in how the money will be spent and the progress that will be made, and a much tighter timetable. I agree with everything the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said about this, but until we get this report on 1 September, it will be very difficult meaningfully to challenge the Government. All eyes will be on my noble friend for that report.

To dump sewage into water is a complete waste of an asset. Sewage is an asset; it contains phosphate, nitrates and organic matter. As we know, phosphate is a mined commodity and most of its deposits are in Russia, so it will be even more scarce. Sewage is a resource that should be utilised and put back on the land. There should be absolutely no need for any sewage to be discharged into waters in future.

The future is the key question. It cannot be done immediately; it is horrendously expensive. We discussed this during the Environment Bill and got quotes of hundreds of billions of pounds under one option and under £100 billion in another. A step change in the programme needs to be made to improve the situation. I once again have to thank our Victorian engineers for providing a sewerage system that still works, partly, in the 21st century. The way they did it is remarkable and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

The Motion refers only to sewage disposal, but there is a much wider issue: the whole issue of water needs to be looked at in context. I therefore turn to farmers. There is a big opportunity under the new environmental land management schemes to get farmers to work in clusters to improve a whole river system. Along with some other Peers, I was fortunate to have a briefing from the Minister yesterday on what will happen with ELMS. He gave the example of the Ridgeway, a walkway crossing lots of local authority areas. I suggest that, equally, there should be clusters of farmers not only in the catchment area but working together along the whole river. Unless farmers work together, we will not get the changes we want.

I also ask my noble friend about the role of the Environment Agency. I was very impressed yesterday when a lot of emphasis was given by the Minister and his officials to the necessity for Defra to work with farmers and gain their trust. Can the same be said of the Environment Agency? I have not found many farmers who trust it, yet they are an integral part of how we will manage wastewater. What was the role of the Environment Agency in the construction of the chicken farms along the Wye, where there has been so much pollution? Was it involved in that? Did it give an opinion on what the effect of the discharge of all this poultry manure would be? If it was not involved, ought we not tackle the planning system to make certain that it is?

This needs to be tackled holistically. It is no good just blaming water companies; it must be tackled at source by independent regulators such as the Environment Agency and farmers need to be more responsible. As your Lordships know, I am a great supporter of what farmers do. They will produce good food in the best way they can, but they have been directed by politicians to farm in a certain way. At long last, we might be getting into a much better system of farming for the future. There is hardly a farmer I know who does not want to work more closely with nature than they have been able to in the past months. Can my noble friend tell me about that and the Environment Agency? Will he instruct it to work as closely with farmers as Defra is, to try to gain some trust from them?

Another group of people who need educating and admonishing is us. We are the polluters—the people who, as my noble friend Lady Altmann said, put wet wipes in lavatories and throw things away that we should not—who help block up the water companies’ pipes, which causes some of the discharges. We waste far too much water. There needs to be a big education programme for us as individuals to realise what damage we are doing, because a lot of us are totally unaware of it.

I move to the question raised earlier of developers having the right to connect to existing sewerage systems—I am sure my noble friend Lady McIntosh will pick up on this, as we were on the same side on this during the Environment Bill. If the existing sewerage system is overloaded and there is a demand for new houses, with planning permission granted, we will get storm overflow systems. We have a real problem. If we do not discharge it into rivers or the sea, what will we do with it until we get a better system? The answer is that it will be put on to our streets and cause far worse pollution. We need to look at this much more holistically and stop the problem in all areas as well as giving the water companies the incentive and drive to produce answers at their end on a much quicker timetable.

My final point, looking at this holistically, is on our aquifers. Much of the problem we have in our rivers is due to them being so low, particularly our chalk streams. This is because the aquifers are being depleted. Until we can start refurbishing our aquifers to get them back to where they should be, we will always have a problem in our rivers. With less flow, you have more sedimentation and get smaller fish, less biodiversity in the river and more stormwater problems. One of the effects of climate change is that we will have many more localised storms: one area of the river might be perfectly fine, but if the river is at a low level, if you get a massive storm in another area, downstream you will have a stormwater problem.

We need to get our river flows up; that will be a huge task for my noble friend but I hope that, as part of the environment plan, the Government will look at this and take action so that we take less out of the aquifers and more out of the river as it gets towards the sea. In that way, we will benefit nature and the environment throughout the river and stop some of this quite unnecessary disposal of sewage into the water and seas.