Government U-turn on dumping of sewage in English rivers

The government on Tuesday sought to defuse an escalating row over water companies discharging raw sewage into English rivers by ending its opposition to legislation to clamp down on the practice.

Last week, an amendment approved by the House of Lords to place a legal duty on water companies to reduce the harm caused by storm overflows was stripped out of the environment bill following a tight House of Commons vote, 268 to 204, despite its garnering widespread public support.

A revolt against Conservative MPs who voted down the non-partisan amendment was growing this week, with pressure mounting both online and in traditional media.

The initial amendment, proposed by crossbench peer Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, called on companies to “take all reasonable steps” by law to stop raw sewage being discharged. The duke’s revised amendment, due to be debated on Tuesday evening in the Lords, called on companies to take action as soon as was reasonable.

Downing Street initially rejected the new amendment to the bill, which rewrites Britain’s post-Brexit ecological rules, paving the way for a further row.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, George Eustice, the environment secretary, announced a government U-turn, confirming that the bill would be strengthened with a government amendment that will see “a duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows”.

In the face of growing public anger, ministers had been concerned that Tory MPs who abstained in last week’s vote might vote in favour of the new Lords amendment when it returns to the Commons.

The timing of the row was especially awkward for Boris Johnson, the prime minister, as international delegates arrive for the COP26 UN climate summit, which begins in Glasgow on Sunday

The government had previously argued that the environment bill already includes provisions to “deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows” and estimated the total elimination of sewage outflows could cost consumers £150bn.

Christine Colvin, director of partnerships and communications at The Rivers Trust, a charity, said: “This looks as though the intent of the Duke of Wellington’s amendment will now be met by the government.

“It is a victory for all those who have stood up for the health of our rivers including the thousands of members of the general public who have made their wishes clear.”

However singer and environmental activist Feargal Sharkey, who has been leading the campaign against sewage in rivers and seas, reacted with scepticism.

“Sending out a press release with no detail is not going to make us slow down,” he said. “The public is now demanding that it stops and stops immediately.”

The debate comes amid growing concerns over the state of waterways in England and Wales, with just 16 per cent of England’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters meeting the minimum “good ecological status”, according to the EU water framework directive.

Water UK, which represents water companies, had called on the government to back the duke’s amendment to the environment bill. It is calling on the sector’s financial regulator, Ofwat, to allow greater investment in infrastructure in the next regulatory period starting in 2024.

“The water industry agrees that we should be ending harm from sources like storm overflows, and we have set out the framework for a comprehensive national plan to do that,” Water UK said. “This calls for government and regulators to authorise new investment.”

Announcing the concession, Eustice said: “Earlier this summer, the government published a new strategy for Ofwat mandating them to progressively reduce the discharge of sewage from storm overflows in the next pricing review.

“Following a debate in the House of Commons last week during the final stages of the environment bill, today we are announcing that we will put that commitment on a statutory footing with a new clause.”

The government said it would bring forward its own amendment in the Commons, when the bill returns to the lower chamber within the next few weeks.

The call for improvements to water infrastructure comes alongside a growing outcry over England’s privatised water companies, which have been accused of extracting excessive pay and dividends at the same time as presiding over a series of pollution and leakage failures.

England is the only country in the world to have fully privatised its water system, with ownership transferred from the state to 17 large regional monopolies in 1989.

David Hall, visiting professor at the University of Greenwich and an expert on the water industry, said that water companies had taken out tens of billions of pounds in dividends which should have been invested in infrastructure.

“We should all remember that the original justification for the privatisation of public water was that the private companies would make the investment that the public sector couldn’t make,” he said.

Earlier this year Southern Water received a record £90m fine for deliberately dumping billions of litres of untreated sewage into seas and rivers between 2010 and 2015, in a case that the judge described as showing “a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment”.

Southern said in response to the fine that what happened was “completely unacceptable”.

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