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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:13 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 1:13 pm, 7th July 2022

I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, who we do not hear from very often. I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, on calling the debate today, and join with him in a heartfelt tribute to the late Lord Chidgey. I remember not just his work on chalk streams but his knowledge of and work on international development in South Africa and other areas. I also declare my interests as on the register. I am vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities and I will be taking up the chairmanship of the project advisory board of a study of bioresources in England, which I will come on to in a moment.

In responding to some of the points raised in what has been an excellent debate covering many of the issues, it is important to note that of course, the current sewage disposal rates into rivers are unacceptable. However, they are unacceptable for a number of reasons, and there is a range of people with responsibilities. In particular, I want to highlight the responsibilities that the Government and developers have. I welcome my noble friend the Minister to his place—we are fortunate that he has his current responsibilities; long may that continue.

My concern is that the Government are wedded to a programme of building 300,000 houses a year, often in inappropriate places such as areas prone to flooding or that take excess surface water. That water, in turn, is then displaced into existing developments or rivers, as we have heard in the debate.

Then, we have the issue of combined sewers. Surface water flooding is a relatively recent problem, alongside the much older problem of fluvial, pluvial, coastal and more regular forms of flooding. It was first identified by Sir Michael Pitt in his review following the dreadful floods in 2007, the damage resulting from which I am very familiar with, as the then MP for Vale of York. His recommendations were spot on but sadly, many of them have still not been implemented. He called for more natural forms of flood prevention such as Slowing the Flow—the Pickering pilot scheme which is preventing the flooding of the town of Pickering and downstream communities. He was in favour of creating more sustainable drains and ensuring that they were maintained, and he insisted that we should stop connecting surface water to public sewers—probably the single most disgusting practice, which is still perpetrated. He also recommended ending the automatic right to connect the wastewater—that is, sewage—coming out of these new houses to pipes that are certainly not fit for purpose. I add that water companies should be made statutory consultees on all future major developments, and as noble Lords have said, we must stop unflushables such as wet wipes, fat, oil and grease blocking sewerage systems.

The problem with building 300,000 houses a year is that the wastewater—the sewage coming out of those houses—simply cannot connect to antiquated, ill-fitting pipes built in Victorian and Edwardian times, which means that raw sewage is spilling into combined sewer overflows that then run into rivers, on to roads and even into people’s homes, causing public health issues.

Will my noble friend use his good offices after today to ensure that finally, Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 will enter into force, end the automatic right to connect from these houses and set up a proper sustainable drainage system? It is unbelievable that 12 years on from passing that legislation, it has still not been brought into effect. Will my noble friend also allow the next price review that is currently being considered, which will take effect from 2024-29, enabling water companies to raise money and invest in and introduce the necessary innovation measures, which I will set out in a moment?

I would like to share with your Lordships what is happening and the work being undertaken by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, which is looking to develop a long-term strategy for bioresources in England. Essentially, without putting too fine a point on it, this is treating the sludge—the solids after the liquids have been taken out of the sewage. I will be chairing a project advisory board, so no doubt, I will become quite an expert in this area. I am delighted to say that among those who will be involved are Defra, BEIS, Energy UK, the Environment Agency, the Institute of Air Quality Management, the National Farmers’ Union, the Country Land and Business Association, the CLA, the British Retail Consortium, the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association, the Rivers Trust, the renewable energy association, water companies as individuals, Water UK and a host of others. I am delighted to be associated with that project.

I make a plea to my noble friend today: we need input from Defra at not just a technical level but a more senior management level, working alongside the Environment Agency and Ofwat to deliver this strategy in order to ensure that finally, we are aligning the investment being made with the regulatory framework. To date, that has not been achieved.

I am working with a number of Members next door, including Philip Dunne, on a cross-party basis, through Westminster Sustainable Business Forum, on Bricks and Water 3—the third report looking to reduce all forms of flooding. I hope that that will help to inform how the planning regime can be amended through the forthcoming levelling-up Bill. Much can be achieved through building regulations, but it is extremely important that we look at the planning regime as well. I look forward to engaging with that Bill in due course.

To conclude, I urge my noble friend to take away from the House today a number of actions that could immediately be taken: modernising and updating the drainage legislation; increasing nature-based solutions such as Slowing the Flow, which works so successfully; ending the automatic right to connect; stopping enabling housing developers to allow surface water to connect into the public sewers; and creating sustainable drainage systems and making one body responsible for maintaining them. We need to educate water customers to change their behaviour on unflushables, including wet wipes, and to reduce their use of fats, oils and grease that create fat balls, or fatbergs, which cause sewage blockages. Even a simple label on a package saying “Not fit to flush” would work. As I have said, I hope that this could be achieved through amendments to the levelling-up Bill in due course.

Will my noble friend look favourably on removing the automatic right for housing developers to connect surface water to public sewers and eliminate from the system in homes the unflushables I have mentioned? These two single measures alone would reduce the ability for blockages to form and reduce surface water which leads to storm overflow spills such as the ones we have heard about from, among others, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. I fully supported the amendment brought forward by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, in this place and my honourable friend Philip Dunne in the other place, but that on its own in the Environment Act is not sufficient. I put to your Lordships today that we cannot continue to have inadequate pipes allowing sewage overflows to immediately go into the rivers upstream and causing tremendous environmental damage—often coming on to public highways but also causing a public health issue by entering existing developments.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to debate these issues today, but I think there will be opportunities in the forthcoming legislation to bring forward real change in this regard.