Now the pollution of our seas and rivers has become a red-hot topic, Conservative MPs in Sussex are busily making sure they’re on the right side of history. Twelve of them signed a public letter last month protesting that Sussex was being “blighted by the discharge of sewage … 15 discharges in the last 72 hours”.
The letter was to Lawrence Gosden, the new CEO of Southern Water, which has been discharging sewage, often illegally, over the past 30 years, not just 72 hours.
The other recipient was James Bevan, head of the Environment Agency, whose monitoring is woefully inadequate – particularly after millions of pounds was slashed from its budget by the then Environment Secretary, Liz Truss. The same Liz Truss that many Tory MPs hope to be our next Prime Minister.
Just when did these MPs decide enough was enough and action was needed? Not last September, when all but two of them lined up on the government benches to defeat a Lords amendment calling for “the separation, where possible, of drainage systems from the sewerage systems through a legal obligation placed on the water companies and local authorities in order to reduce harm from untreated discharges”.
The amendment placed a new duty on water companies and the government “to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows and requires that they progressively reduce the harm caused by these discharges”.
Hardly revolutionary stuff – note the “where possible” and “all reasonable steps” – and the defeat in the Commons was seen as a massive disappointment to campaigners and yet another example of the Government refusing to take the issue seriously.
Steps towards a government U-turn
Ministers then introduced their own amendment, significantly watering down the Lords wording and appearing to provide loopholes for the water companies to exploit. But it was enough for our Sussex MPs to file obediently once again into the government lobby.
Fast forward to the recent heatwaves which triggered a not unpredictable train of events: baked ground, flash flooding, and once more sewage belching out along the Sussex coast and beyond.
Faced by a frustrated and angry public – many of them their own voters – the Government had a rethink. And on August 19 in their letter, the MPs announced the results – a fresh tweak to the Environment Bill which would “for the first time ever … put a statutory obligation on water companies to take steps to eradicate the practice [of sewage discharges following floods]”.
Not true! says Tory MP caught in media storm
A new ‘Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan’ would force water companies to act, because, as the MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield, said in a letter to constituents, they will “face strict targets and must completely eliminate the harm sewage discharge causes to the environment”.
Caulfield tells constituents in the same newsletter that “it is simply not true” as some in the media had suggested, that she voted against action on sewage. Voted against the Lords amendment, yes, because, “without changing the system … it would lead to sewage leaking into people’s homes”.
It is a convenient get-out clause – and all but acknowledges the decades of chronic underinvestment by private companies in our sewerage system.
See also in our Toxic Shock series
So how is the system being changed? Under new rules, it is said there will be a duty on the companies to reduce the impact of sewage discharges from storm overflows. So what’s the plan, Stan? Sorry, George Eustice, Right Honourable Secretary of State for the Environment, what’s The Plan?
Well … “the work to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows has already started,” he says. And, wait for it, by 2025, water companies will have reduced overflows discharges from 2020 levels by around 25 per cent. Progress will be reviewed in 2027.
The Government is also expecting the companies to pump in a combined £56 billion in investment over this time. But it will be tough, as he admits ”we need to be careful of the impact on water bills”.
So there you have it, we the public will pay for it, one way or another. Through higher bills, or greater volumes of sewage. The Government has in other words, washed their hands of it.
What about the alternative: re-nationalisation under regional oversight, which would ensure the public was in charge of sorting out the mess? Bringing water back into public control could cost as little as £14.5bn in compensation to the 15 English water companies. The costing of Labour Party plans is based on research by the Financial Times, and is, says the newspaper, in stark contrast to the £44bn estimated by the Social Market Foundation, an industry-funded think-tank, rising to £90bn if the companies’ debt was included.
But meanwhile, Mr Eustice, where is the extra money to keep water companies on their toes? Remember those budget cuts? An investigation by the Lib Dems revealed that many Southern Water sewage monitors along the Sussex coast were either “not installed or faulty”.
And so the political fallout continues, as does the pollution.
For Labour, Helena Dollimore, parliamentary candidate for Hastings and Rye, says: “It is disgraceful that yet more raw sewage has dumped into our sea, closing our beaches in Hastings during summer season, and poisoning our beautiful Sussex coastline and rivers.”
She adds: “For too long Southern Water has been allowed to get away with this, and our Conservative MP and Conservative Government have been letting them. Sally-Ann Hart says there is no ‘quick fix’ to this problem but her party have been in power for 12 years and ignored Labour’s warnings.”
The drumbeat of warnings, from the Lib Dems and Greens, too, are getting louder. But it is clear this Government would rather dither over the water and sewage crisis than admit that the system set up by their revered former leader, Margaret Thatcher, has failed to deliver a water and sewerage system fit for the present… let alone the future.
Sussex MPs who signed the letter
Maria Caulfield, Lewes
Sally-Ann Hart, Hastings and Rye
* Huw Merriman, Bexhill & Battle
* Caroline Ansell, Eastbourne
Tim Loughton, Worthing & Shoreham
Jeremy Quin, Horsham
Nus Ghani, Wealden
Mims Davies, Mid Sussex
Gillian Keegan, Chichester
Henry Smith, Crawley
Nick Gibb, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton
Andrew Griffith, Arundel and South Downs
Sir Peter Bottomley, Worthing West
* Indicates which ones who didn’t back the Government over the Lords amendment.