Our bathing waters are OK? Wrong, Sally Ann Hart MP

Title page of the report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee. Photo credit: UK Parliament

A seemingly impressive 94.7 per cent of beaches and inland waters have just gained an ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’ rating by the Environment Agency. Wonderful news, you might think. And it has certainly been welcomed by Sally Ann Hart, Conservative MP for Hastings & Rye, just months after the beaches in Hastings and St Leonards were closed after a major sewage leak.

Now that the media storm over our polluted waterways has abated, Hart presumably believes the problem’s sorted.

Not quite. The Environment Agency’s findings conflict with a report, also out this month, from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee. After a year examining all the evidence and visiting various locations in England, the MPs’ report is damning and unsparing in its assessment of inland waters.

The evidence points to English rivers being with worst in Europe. And there’s more:

  • Water companies appear to be regularly dumping untreated or partially-treated sewage in rivers, despite permits that only allow them to do this in exceptional circumstances. Farm slurry and fertiliser run-off is choking rivers and plastic pollution is clogging up drains and creating ‘wet-wipe reefs’ in rivers.
  • Monitoring is underfunded and pathetically inadequate. The CHEM Trust says monitoring shows only the tip of the iceberg in terms of chemical pollution. Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.

The full report makes uncomfortable reading for the government, but it cannot be by any stretch of the imagination be described as biased. It is chaired by the Conservative MP Philip Dunne and members range from establishment Tories such as Sir Christopher Chope to Brighton’s own Green MP Caroline Lucas.

So back to that 94.7 per cent figure. How does that stack up against the committee’s findings? The MPs acknowledge that regulators and water companies have made “a great deal of progress” since the 1990s in cleaning up and monitoring coastal waters.

Overflowing storm drains are blamed

At a recent meeting with Wealden councillors, Southern Water’s chief executive Ian McAulay, said 60 of the region’s bathing waters were now ‘excellent’ and 20 ‘good’ – “the best across the UK”. He went on to admit that this mostly represented coastal waters, in other words, beaches. The company blames river pollution on overflowing storm drains, something it says it will fix by 2040.

However, as surely as rivers run into the sea, the issue of pollution is one that that clearly affects us all, everywhere.

As for the Environment Agency’s figures, the so-called watchdog has already suffered massive cuts to its funding and, as a consequence, recently instructed staff to ignore instances of low-impact pollution.

The Audit Committee’s report has interesting recommendations, some quite modest. For example, each water company should designate at least one river as a bathing water by 2025.

Other recommendations include limiting water company executives’ excessive bonuses and an urgent review of water companies’ self-monitoring.

Tories turn tap down on water cleansing

But government inaction is a sad given. Last autumn it whipped its MPs to defeat an amendment to the Environment Bill intended to force water companies to stop the release of untreated wastewater into rivers and seas. Conservative MPs received hundreds of letters and emails from outraged constituents. 

Our rivers are the most polluted in Europe, according to a new report. Photo credit: Kevin Andre / Unsplash

But like all media storms, this one was short-lived. The government, Conservative MPs and the water companies could feel that the pressure was off and their preferred option – for a lighter regulatory system – had won.

The result of this approach has emerged this week in the government’s latest plan to ‘act’ on the issue of our polluted waterways.

Promises like “driving increased monitoring” and “providing farmers with advice on reducing pollution” fall far short of what is needed, while the claim that the Environment Agency is “monitoring 80 per cent of storm overflows” is frankly incredible. 

But only monitoring? What is it actually doing about them? In the new government plan, there is no legal duty on water companies to act.

Local authorities turn up the pressure

Meanwhile, in Sussex, local authorities like Wealden are keeping up the pressure. Brighton and Hove Council has called for CEO Ian McAulay to meet them in person and explain what actions Southern Water proposes to take. 

Greens have already put forward some proposals for tackling the problems of an under-invested, antiquated and crumbling wastewater system. They want the community to be involved in investment in sustainable urban drainage systems – known as SuDS. These introduce a range of environmental measures such as wetlands, ponds, green roofs, rainwater harvesting systems and porous asphalt and grass to help absorb, slow and prevent water run-off. 

In Sweden, SuDS systems have been crucial to flood prevention, absorbing up to 90 per cent of stormwater in some areas and preventing the need to discharge sewage overflow into the sea.  

In Lewes, the council has called for Southern to say how it will put a stop to illegal discharges into the River Ouse. Cllr Matthew Bird recently described the water company’s track record as “shocking” and pointed out that in 2020 there were more than 600 sewage overspills in the district. At just one storm outfall, the Portobello near Saltdean, there were more than 50 discharges of raw sewage into the sea in the course of a year. 

As Cllr Elaine Hills says: “Private companies have the future of our water systems in their hands – and we need them to be held to account, and to work with local communities to help us tackle the problems we all face.” 

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