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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:42 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:42 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, this has been a really good debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Oates, on securing it. I also join him in paying tribute to Feargal Sharkey, who has done so much to raise this issue. I also pay tribute to Lord Chidgey, who is greatly missed in this House.

While we have been enjoying rather dry weather recently, and water companies’ attention may be on supply issues, that should not diminish the importance of continuing to talk about how we deal with challenges around storm overflows and other forms of sewage release. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who is not in his place, gave an appalling example of sewage releases into the River Ver. That kind of behaviour from water companies is not acceptable.

How we treat sewage was also brought into focus recently by the extremely worrying news that traces of the polio virus were found in an east London sewage works. Any release of sewage has potential public health implications, but this incident is particularly concerning. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and others, talked about antibiotics being in water and the serious health concerns around that. As she said, this is about having good, clean, healthy water.

I want to think about the progress on tackling this issue. It was four years ago this month that the Environment Bill was first announced. This weekend will mark eight months since the final version of that legislation achieved Royal Assent. As other noble Lords have mentioned, during the passage of the Environment Act, concerned Members of Parliament and Peers of all political persuasions pushed the Government to take clear, decisive action to reduce sewage pollution and improve the UK’s water quality. This is a cross-party issue.

I again pay tribute, as others have done, to the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for his persistence during the Environment Bill, and to other colleagues who supported him. It was due to that that the Government made concessions in this area. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said, it was good to see that changes were made to that legislation to improve what is happening with sewage discharges and our water quality, but Ministers’ ambition was not high enough—not for us or for a number of other organisations. We have been told by Ministers that eradicating storm overflows entirely—this is one of the things that the noble Duke got so frustrated about—was simply too expensive and that any further attempts to force the water companies’ hands would produce little by way of result but would ultimately penalise bill payers. Of course that is not what we want to see.

While we clearly do not deny the right of private companies to make a profit, it is hard for water companies to plead poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, mentioned the salaries and bonuses given to people at the top of water companies, and my noble friend Lord Sikka talked about the huge sums of money involved. When we think about the huge sums of money going to people heading water companies, we also need to think about what is happening with dividends to shareholders. The University of Greenwich has done some analysis which showed that between 2010 and 2021 dividends worth £19 billion were paid to shareholders in water and sewerage businesses operating in England. Is that the best use of water companies’ money?

At the same time, if you compare current investment in wastewater management with the level seen in the 1990s, all but two companies are spending less, with the net impact being a reduction of £526 million every single year. The same is true of capital investment in long-term solutions. The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said that it is important that we have long-term solutions and I agree. Companies were investing £1 billion a year less in 2021, compared to 1991. Perhaps we could accept these trends if the underlying problems were being resolved but the sheer volume of dumped sewage—as we have heard, there were more than 370,000 incidents last year—is almost beyond comprehension and, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, every water company does this.

The current system is not working so we have to consider why. The answer seems to lie in what can be described only as the half-hearted efforts of Defra Ministers and key figures at Ofwat and the Environment Agency. I am sure the Minister would not include himself in that, so can he explain why it is taking so long to sort this out properly? Despite the Environment Bill dating back to 2018, it was not until 31 March this year that Defra launched a consultation on the subject and now, as others have said, we must wait until 2050 to reach an 80% reduction in discharges.

My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours talked about the impact of pollution on rivers and lakes in Cumbria, which I have also seen first-hand. I thoroughly support him when he says, “For goodness’ sake, can’t the Government speed up on this?” I draw attention to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, about flooding and the impact of new developments. This is important. We have to work across government. Planning is an integral part of solving this problem. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, talked about SUDS and foul sewers and connections to new developments. What work is being done across government to look at exactly how this can be solved, particularly around planning and new developments?

Farming has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords; the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in particular made some pertinent points around this. I would be interested to hear the Minister report on what work is being done with farmers and the Environment Agency to reduce river pollution on farms.

However, with the current events in Westminster, I suspect that tackling sewage pollution is not the Government’s number one priority—although there is clearly a bit of a clean-up taking place at the moment. Whoever ends up running the country needs to get a grip on these issues because there are huge costs not only to local communities but to our wildlife and increasingly fragile natural environment.

This debate has provided an important opportunity to take stock. I will listen carefully to the Minister’s response but he should perhaps think about taking forward the suggestion from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, that this issue should also be debated in the autumn. Then might be a good time to look at whether any of the promised progress has been made—because progress is what we need.