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Feargal Sharkey condemns failure to tackle sewage discharge into our rivers

Feargal Sharkey has condemned the government, water companies and the Environment Agency for failing to get a grip on the discharge of sewage into our river systems.

The environmental campaigner and musician was also highly critical of suggestions that the taxpayer would have to foot the huge bill for the infrastructure changes necessary to tackle the problem.

Feargal Sharkey
Feargal Sharkey

Mr Sharkey was speaking after the government promised to place a new legal duty on the companies. It had come under fire for previously rejecting a Lords amendment to the Environment Bill that would have enforced action.

Conservative MP, including South Cambridgeshire’s Anthony Browne and South East Cambridgeshire’s Lucy Frazer, were among those voting again the amendment, under direction from environment secretary George Eustice. They argued the amendment came with no considered plan on how to tackle the issue.

Amid the stinging criticism that followed, Mr Browne helped persuade the government into Labour called a “screeching U-turn” and pledge to impose new demands on water companies.

Mr Sharkey, however, was unimpressed.

“It doesn’t even come remotely close,” he told BBC Breakfast. “The courts ruled nine years ago that what is going on in this country is illegal. Storm overflows should only ever be used in exceptional situations.”

Discharge of sewage into a river (52747204)
Discharge of sewage into a river (52747204)

Anglian Water discharged sewage into rivers for 170,326 hours in 2020, according to the Environment Agency. Water companies across the country did so for a combined three million hours last year.

South Cambridgeshire’s MP argued the new amendment would help resolve the issue.

Mr Browne told the Cambridge Independent: “This new amendment gives our Environment Bill a bit more bite and a few more teeth when it comes to tackling the disgusting problem of sewerage discharge.

“I met George Eustice, the environment secretary, and urged him to take the strongest possible action on sewage discharge. The government had already instructed Ofwat to ensure that water companies take steps to ‘significantly reduce storm overflows’, but I am glad to say he has risen to the challenge and gone one step further.

“We now have an amendment that can be properly implemented, laying down an expectation in law that water companies will bring about a progressive reduction in adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.

“The government will be required by law to present to Parliament by next September a detailed plan showing how it will eliminate sewage discharges, with a separate report on the mechanics of how to achieve it.”

Cllr Ian Sollom. Picture: Chris Sidell
Cllr Ian Sollom. Picture: Chris Sidell

But Liberal Democrat Ian Sollom, a South Cambridgeshire district councillor who stood against Mr Browne at the last election, was unconvinced.

He said: “It is outrageous to see our MP betray our local community and environment in Parliament. Their job should be to stand up for our local area. Our rivers are being polluted on a daily basis by water companies, showing a disregard for our environment.

"Enough is enough. We need action now. A serious proposal for tackling sewage discharges was put before Parliament, but the Conservatives, including Anthony Browne, rejected it. In response to the outcry, he and the government are now promising a mere 'expectation' that water companies will gradually take action. This is inadequate.

“I am proud Liberal Democrats in Parliament are leading the fight to protect our local rivers and urge Anthony Browne to change his mind ahead of the crucial next vote. We have just one more opportunity to save our rivers and I call on Conservative MPs to do the right thing for our local environment.”

Labour's shadow environment secretary, Luke Pollard, called it a “screeching u-turn” but said the government “still has no clear plan and no grip on the issue”.

But Mr Browne said: “It is completely ridiculous to suggest anyone is in favour of sewage draining into our waterways. I’ve campaigned extensively to protect our local chalk streams, including pushing the government into setting up a national task force to protect them and others across the country. But what we need now is the long, detailed, practical work required to deliver on all of our ambitions.”

Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell

The original Lords amendment has sought to place a new duty on sewerage undertakers to demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage.

Justifying his decision to oppose it, Mr Browne said he supported the idea “in principle” but the Duke of Wellington’s amendment “came with no plan” and “no impact assessment”.

“Some might argue that a plan is not essential, that one can be formulated afterwards,” he said, “But in eliminating storm overflows, we are talking about transforming a system which has operated since the Victorian era.

“The practical problem is that across the UK there is just one system of pipes that takes both rainwater and sewerage from homes, rather than separate systems for rainwater and for sewerage. When there are storms, so much rainwater enters the sewerage system that it cannot be contained and needs to flow somewhere. If we didn’t have storm overflows into the rivers, then there would be flooding with raw sewerage, which can be extremely harrowing for households.”

The cost of that infrastructure change would be £150billion-£650billion, he said, although this government estimate has since been questioned. Under the new amendment, the government would present “upfront, clear and comprehensive information on the cost and impact of eliminating storm overflows”.

But Mr Sharkey questioned why the water companies were not ploughing their profits into solving the issue.

“Why is the taxpayer being asked to pay this? These are private companies,” he told BBC Breakfast. “Water companies have profited to the tune of over £60billion over the last 30 years, whilst filling our rivers full of sewage. Perhaps it is the shareholders of the water companies that should be picking up that debt, and certainly not the customers.”

Little Blue Dot’s poonami protest on the River Cam
Little Blue Dot’s poonami protest on the River Cam

After the original Lords amendment was voted down, Mr Sharkey had accused the government of hypocrisy.

“In days we are about to stand on a global stage and commit hypocrisy on a global scale, lecturing about climate change when we are killing every river in this country,” he said.

“How can you stand on that stage and expect respect and credibility and lead the world into a future with less carbon when they know well you are killing some of the rarest ecosystems and strangling every river in the country?”

He said more must be done by MPs to represent the views of their constituents.

He said: “The truth is that we’re now seeing 30 years of underinvestment by our water industry. The government has created this situation we’re in. The House of Lords are more determined than last week, and are more strident to prepare the legislation.

“It is up to the MPs to decide whether they are prepared to feed the rhetoric or if they are prepared to deliver a greener environment and go out and do what is being demanded of them.”

Anglian Water has been the subject of environmental campaigns, with climate action group Little Blue Dot hosting a ‘Stop the Poonami’ protest on the Cam in September.

Little Blue Dot’s poonami protest on the River Cam
Little Blue Dot’s poonami protest on the River Cam

That came after Environment Agency figures showed that Anglian Water had been releasing more treated sewage effluent into the River Cam than its permit allows since 2015.

In 2020, Anglian Water discharged raw sewage into the Cam Valley chalk streams 156 times in 2020, principally in Melbourn and Haslingfield.

An Anglian Water spokesperson said: “We share the ambitions of our customers and their expectations that our rivers should be beautiful places, rich in nature. Our role is to carefully balance the needs of our customers with protecting the wider environment, all while keeping bills affordable for all.

“Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) act as a necessary safety valve in old sewerage systems, to protect homes and businesses from flooding during heavy rainfall. But as our climate changes and extreme weather is now commonplace, they are no longer fit for purpose.

“Water companies have a proven track record of investing in environmental protection and improvements since privatisation. We have been addressing CSOs over many years, tackling those that pose an environmental risk first, and working through the rest. The engineering solutions are not straightforward and the cost to customers is significant – to the tune of £600billion nationwide.

“The best solutions include pouring less concrete in our towns and cities, creating more permeable green spaces and using sustainable drainage systems to keep rainwater run-off from roads and buildings out of sewers. But these can only be put in place in partnership and with investment from local authorities, developers and highways, as well as water companies.

“We welcome the Environment Bill’s new provisions on storm overflows, and are keen for the Secretary of State to bring forward a plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and reduce their impacts. We look forward to contributing to the plan with Defra, the EA and environmental groups, and the Storm Overflows Task Force to drive the progress needed.

Little Blue Dot’s poonami protest on the River Cam
Little Blue Dot’s poonami protest on the River Cam

“However, flooding and river quality are about much more than storm overflows. Agriculture, highways teams and our customers all have a role to play in the health of our rivers. We will, without doubt, step up and do our bit – but there is a real risk that if all investment is targeted only at CSOs we will never realise the environmental improvements we all want in our waterways.”

Stephen Tomkins, of The Cam Valley Forum, said pressure on water companies to tackle storm overflows was needed.

“Wastewater discharges do harm biodiversity and pose risks to human health and are a particular concern for our local chalk streams and for all those who enjoy swimming and other forms of water-based recreation in the Cam,” he said.

“Anthony Browne has shown support for chalk streams locally, and his written comments correctly reveal the huge underinvestment that all politicians have failed to insist upon in the past.

“We would love to see a much deeper and longer-term change in environmental responsibility - across all the parties. Cam Valley Forum are therefore pressing this government to direct the water companies to invest much more in monitoring overflows, increasing stormwater storage, and treating wastewater to higher standards. We are currently in dialogue with Anglian Water about prioritising specific Cam Valley sewage treatment works for such urgent action.”

Read more

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New study of Cambridge chalk streams and habitats commissioned

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Green wall screen for proposed site for new Anglia Water waste water treatment plant serving Cambridge region

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