Over the past days, I have been contacted many times by concerned constituents both personally and via social media with regards to my recent vote on Amendment 60 to the Environment Bill with regards to dumping sewage into waterways. Of course, I do understand why so many are rightly concerned about this and would like nothing more than to set out the reasons behind my vote.
This is a vital issue, and one which also relates to the problems with the water companies and phosphates that is affecting much of Somerset, preventing planning permissions, and about which I have been in continual touch with Wessex Water, Ministers, the Environment Agency (EA), local Councils and the Government.
I met with the Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, last week to discuss this very issue. And we are meeting further with Wessex Water and other stakeholders to seek a remedy. In the meantime, the Environment Bill has offered an opportunity to strengthen duties on water companies and I have worked with peers in the House of Lords to untangle this issue and put forward Amendments.
I, of course, supported the Amendment from the chair of the Environment Select Committee to do the maximum to control & regulate storm overflows, along with many other measures – some of which I will mention further on.
The Lords Amendment in question is certainly appealing, however it is impractical. For a complete ban on such practices – which I should note, we all agree with in theory – our sewage system works by allowing discharges in extreme rainfall to prevent flooding. To ban it completely, the majority of all sewage systems in the entire country would have to be reinstalled. The estimated cost would be up to £600 billion – more than all our pandemic measures put together.
In many cases, with the gradients it is not possible to get a sewage system in place to work without discharge release, so a legal ban will mean sewages would have to discharge into pavements, fields etc. instead of the sea. It is the technical details that we are trying to work up so that by resolving one problem we are not causing another one. There are many classic examples of gravity fed sewage systems – not unlike those here in Somerset – that discharge into the fields and floor plains in heavy rainfall.
It would obviously be irresponsible for anyone to accept this Amendment as it stands. As the Bill returns from the House of Lords again, we will – since we all do agree in principle – have worked out in detail how to provide and codify in law further commitments on storm overflows. In addition, the Bill now includes a new duty on the Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and their adverse impact, and report to Parliament on its progress.
It includes a requirement for the Government to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the cost and benefits of those actions. Both publications are required before next September. It includes a new duty directly on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
The Bill includes a new duty directly on water companies to publish near real time information on the operation of storm overflows and to monitor the water quality both upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works. It includes a new duty directly on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning horizon, including how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans. The Bill includes a power of direction for the Government to direct water companies in relation to the actions in these Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans.
Without a cost greater than the entire pandemic and the restructuring of the country’s whole sewerage system, which I hope you can agree is neither reasonable, proportionate nor practical, the Bill and its amendments (including forthcoming ones) will make a huge impact and unprecedented progress on the very issue we are all concerned with here.
Politics is not only the art of the possible, it is also about sensible and realistic targeted actions.