Backlash against raw sewage vote as local hotspots revealed
- Credit: Sonya Duncan/Mick Howes/Nick Butcher.
MPs are facing backlash after voting against amending a bill which would stop water companies pumping raw sewage into local rivers and seas.
The vote, which took place earlier this month, saw 265 Tory MPs turning down an amendment to the Environment Bill which sought to place a legal duty on water companies not to pump sewage into rivers.
Only 22 Conservative MPs rebelled against the government. This did not include Waveney MP Peter Aldous, who voted to turn down the amendment.
Mr Aldous said he did not believe concerns were justified, stating many of the amendments would already be delivered through the Environment Bill.
He added: "The amount of sewage discharged by water companies into our rivers is unacceptable and ministers have made it crystal clear it is a priority that discharges from storm overflows must be reduced."
Caroline Topping, Green party councillor for Beccles and Worlingham on East Suffolk Council, wrote to Mr Aldous to explain his decision.
She said: "I understand water companies are ‘allowed’ to put raw sewage into our rivers and the sea only during extreme weather cases as an overflow ‘relief' but this bill would have made it the legal duty of those companies to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused to human and other life by discharges of untreated sewage.
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"I know many people who wild swim in the River Waveney and pre-COVID we actually had two annual organised Wild River Swims which were highly successful and would not have been allowed to go ahead had the water quality not been good.
"Also, cold water swimming is one of those activities that appears to be having a beneficial effect on sufferers of long-Covid and with numbers of sufferers rising, anything that will help them must be encouraged and supported.
"The River Waveney is the jewel in Beccles crown.
"It is our beach, one of our main tourist attractions.
"If we can not protect our river from this disgusting misuse, then our jewel is under serious threat.
"Who is going to support our communities when the tourists no longer wish to visit because our beautiful waters have sewerage floating in them?"
With just over a week until COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the limelight will be focussed on ministers' green credentials.
Recent data published by the Rivers Trust show sewage overflow hotspots across Beccles, Bungay and Lowestoft.
The River Waveney Trust are working with local farmers to share best practice in dealing with sewage run off.
But for chair of the trustee board at River Waveney Trust, Keith Lead, action rather than words is needed.
He said: "We've seen a lot more people using our rivers since lockdown was lifted.
"As a trust, we have a duty to improve our rivers because they are consistently failing to achieve a clean status mainly because of sewage run offs and waterflows.
"I'm disappointed with Mr Aldous and the other local MPs because they can do more, especially with the COP26 summit approaching.
"Sewage spills into rivers and the sea damage aquatic life and increases dilution.
"We require a change in the law to prevent water companies doing this so I think a government U-turn is needed."
In a lengthy statement to this newspaper, Mr Aldous said: "The provisions in the Environment Bill will deliver significant reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows and any suggestion to the contrary is both disingenuous and untrue.
"Direct action being taken through the bill will require water companies to monitor the water quality impacts of their sewage discharges and to publish this information.
"This will ensure water companies reduce sewage discharges that cause the most harm to the environment and public health.
"It is necessary for Ministers to be pragmatic in relation to the calls for complete elimination of storm overflows.
"The age of our Victorian sewerage systems means that the complete elimination of discharges from storm overflows would be extremely challenging.
"Initial assessments suggest total elimination would cost more than £150 billion.
"This process would involve the complete separation of the sewerage systems, leading to potentially significant disruption for homes, businesses and infrastructure across the country."
He added the government is required to produce a plan to reduce storm overflows and their harm by September 2022, while ministers are also reviewing legislation requiring sustainable drainage systems to be constructed on new developments.
He also noted water companies are set to invest £3.1bn in storm overflow improvements between 2020 and 2025 across England, adding the Environment Agency has concluded 47 prosecutions for breaches since 2015, issuing fines of over £132m.
Where are the local sewage hotspots?
According to the Rivers Trust, people should avoid entering the water immediately downstream of these local hotspots due to the excess amount of sewage in the waterways.
This is particuarly the case for wild swimmers using the River Waveney in Beccles and Bungay.
- River Waveney, Beccles - In 2020, sewage spilled into the river 21 times for a total of 86 hours.
- River Waveney, Bungay - Sewage discharges have been identified at the Nethergate Street area of Bungay, leading to unhealthy amounts of sewage in the waterways.
- Kessingland, Marsh Lane - Sewage discharges from a pumping station in Kessingland has led to large amounts of sewage in the waterways.
- Outer Harbour, Lowestoft - Sewer storm overflows have led to several sewage discharges into the outer harbour in Lowestoft.
- Inner Habour, Lowestoft - Sewer discharges from a local water company has led to high levels of sewage in the inner harbour, Lowestoft.
- Belvedere Road, Lowestoft - In 2020, sewage spilled into the river 11 times for a total of 9 hours.