Today saw the return of a number of Lords Amendments to the Environment Bill in the Commons. As previously, a number of constituents have raised the issue of sewage being dumped in our waters. Along with others, I am horrified by the images from across Teignbridge showing this taking place and I believe we are all in agreement that steps need to be taken to resolve this troubling issue.
In response to the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, the Government tabled a further amendment. This Government amendment has been discussed in detail with the Duke of Wellington and others involved in the drafting of the Duke’s amendment. The Duke made it clear that were the Government to respond positively to the queries he raised, which the Minister subsequently did, then he would support this Government amendment and not re-table his in the Lords.
What does the Government amendment do?
The Government amendment places a legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impact of sewage discharges. This requires water companies to reduce the impact of sewage discharges on the environment and public health. This latter measure wasn’t in the Duke’s amendment and is a welcome further measure put in place by the Government to protect those who make use of our fantastic local natural rivers and beaches.
To be clear, these measures compliment and extend the existing provisions in the Environment Bill for each water company to produce a statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plan every five years, which will set out how such reduction in sewage discharges will be achieved and funded. There is also a power for Government to direct water companies in relation to actions in those plans if they are not good enough.
As my colleague Philip Dunne MP, who Chairs the Environmental Audit Committee and voted for the Duke’s amendment last time points out, claims from campaigners that the amendment weakens existing legislation are wrong. The water companies have an existing Section 94(1)(b) duty to treat sewage “effectually”, which has existed since 1991, and the new amendment does not replace or override this duty.
Fundamentally, we cannot fix decades of under-investment overnight with a blanket ban on sewage discharges - however much campaigners and we might wish. This is, however, a big step on the road to ultimately ending sewage discharge in the sea and rivers. We can’t just flick a switch and solve the problem. This will take a lot of work because we have a practical problem here in the UK that we have one set of pipes draining rainwater and sewage from our homes and businesses which is purified and then returned to the system. Whilst provisions on this are changing to ensure that separate pipes are put into new developments, we aren’t there yet.
During storms, the system simply cannot contain the level of water and it has to be discharged through the storm overflows into rivers and the sea. If this weren’t to happen, the system would back up and send raw sewage into people’s homes. This would be completely unacceptable. Preventing the release of untreated sewage during storms is a massive undertaking, albeit one that is essential to take on.
The problem of new developments
As I wrote last time, I believe both sides are missing out a crucial part of the problem here; new developments. Developers continuing to add houses to the system without any discussion, consent or contribution to the cost of maintaining the sewage system. On that basis, I believe the following should happen:
- Developers should have to ensure the additional discharges from new homes are separated to minimise the additional water which has to be put through a sewerage system. It’s the extra water into the system which causes the overflow.
- They should pay a sum to the water company to update the sewerage infrastructure and should put an additional sum into a pot for clean up to be used if overflows happen.
- Water companies should be required to put in place a plan to deliver zero sewerage overflow as soon practicable, whilst meanwhile being fined for every overflow. They’ve become too complacent and this needs to change.
- Ofwat need to be given stronger regulatory teeth to be able to act against developers who are abusing the system and be positioned as a more effective champion of consumer rights in this space.
- Ofwat need to impose an obligation on sewerage companies to improve the sewerage infrastructure in exchange for being able to set a reasonable price for their services and the consumer should not be expected to pay for extensive remedial work.
I shall continue to push for these measures to be enacted in law under future planning legislation.
In my previous response, there were a number of areas that I was seeking clarification from the Government on:
- What steps the Government is taking to meet its 1 September 2022 reporting target and the repercussions for not meeting this target;
- What steps the Government is taking to regulate the developers when it comes to increasing pressure on the system;
- What sanction and enforcement processes they will be putting in place to ensure compliance from the water companies;
- What measures they plan to put in place to ensure the unreasonable infrastructure costs are not passed onto bill payers.
On points 1, 3 and 4, I am satisfied that the Government’s amendment and statements regarding Ofwat cover these sufficiently and on point 2, I have made clear in the previous section what I believe needs to be done here and will continue to push the Government on this issue.
The reality is that the Duke of Wellington (the author of the Lords amendment) has now said that he supports the Government amendment and having seen it passed, will not bring back his amendment again to the Lords. There is clearly far more we can all be doing on this issue, but to continuously ping pong this amendment back and forth between the Houses doesn’t help anybody, especially long-suffering residents and businesses, too many of whom have experienced polluting incidents across Teignbridge.