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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:51 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:51 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Oates, on securing this debate and thank noble Lords for their contributions.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, was absolutely right to mention the late Lord Chidgey. I remember having a very good debate about chalk streams with him in this Chamber just before he died. He saw my passion for them and raised me his. He was a great fighter for river health in this place.

My wife refers to my local river as my mid-life crisis; I suppose it is better than a fast car or soaring political ambition. I share noble Lords’ indignation and frustration that our rivers are not of the quality they should be and not in the state they should be in. That 14% figure is shaming. It is a high bar to reach. One wonders how many rivers there were in the past. One fact we must always remember is that we have been putting sewage, in one form or another, into our rivers for decades—centuries, even—but it has gotten out of hand and must stop.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, talked about her eponymous sewer: “Sarah’s sewer”. In my former life as the Water Minister, I remember being shown “Prescott’s sluice” in the East End of London. I am not sure that I want to have a sluice named after me; the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, who was here earlier, may be able to tell me whether it was named after him. I am trying to think of alliteration; perhaps my sewer should have been called “Dick’s drain” because, when I arrived as Water Minister in 2010, everyone was opposed to it. The chairman of Ofwat took me on to Westminster Bridge, pointed to the river and said, “It won’t be a different colour if you spend billions on a new sewer. It will look just the same but will have cost water customers an enormous amount of money”. It was opposed right across politics. The noble Baroness is right that her former colleague, Simon Hughes—the former MP for Bermondsey—fiercely opposed it. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and many others used to come and see me about it. Indeed, like a student going in front of a don, I had to go right to the top of the Government to tell Oliver Letwin why his fears were not to be realised. I am glad that I now see it under construction and that this iconic river, in one of the great cities of the world, will be cleaner as a result.

A healthy water environment is fundamental to a thriving economy, to abundant biodiversity and of course to public enjoyment of our beautiful rivers, lakes and bathing waters. The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, made the very good point that this is not subject to the four-year or five-year electoral horizons that most politicians look to; we want to see generational and multidecadal change. The Government’s 25-year environmental plan includes a commitment to restore three-quarters of our water bodies to close to their natural state, but we know that we need to do more to meet this rightly high bar. That is why we are going further and faster than any Government in protecting and enhancing the health of our rivers and seas. This has included ground-breaking action to massively reduce the harm caused by storm overflows.

The noble Lord mentioned the importance of civic society. Politicians can hold Governments to account but the public can too. A huge breadth of civil society groups stand up for their rivers, and I remember from when we ran a campaign called Love your River how important it is to give people their sense of place.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, I can admire the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, but I can disagree with his points. He talked about privatised ownership being some sort of fetish. Actually, I would say that £150 billion of investment in our water sector would not have been reached by any degree if it had still been in public ownership. The owners of those companies would have had to get in the queue behind the health service, pensions, the police, hospitals and so on. Renationalisation would require a future Government to buy out the pension funds that pay perhaps his and perhaps my pension, and perhaps the pensions of many people on low incomes. The cost of buying Thames Water was estimated a year or two ago—my figures might be out of date—at £12 billion. To buy out the entire water sector would be a terrible shame. It would be the wrong thing for investment.