As you will be aware, there has been a considerable amount of misinformation circling about this so I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight.
Let me be clear, neither myself nor my colleagues on the Conservative benches voted to allow water companies to pump sewage into our rivers. The preliminary cost of the required infrastructure changes was estimated to be between £150bn and £650bn. Unless we asked taxpayers to contribute to this, most of the water companies who would be carrying out this work would have gone bankrupt, meaning that the work would not have been completed anyway.
Furthermore, the cost, on each household, of imposing legal duties on the companies to reduce discharges was estimated to be between £5,000 and £20,000. As such, I was not prepared to support this.
Nevertheless, I am proud to be part of a government that is the first in history to address the broader problems presented by storm overflows. As you may be aware, last year, the Government launched the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan which will require water companies to deliver their largest ever environmental infrastructure investment totalling £56 billion over the next 25 years.
As part of the plan, water companies will be required to take measures such as increasing the capacity of their networks and treating sewage before it is discharged. To that end, I am pleased to see that water companies are now working with Ministers as they invest a further £3.1 billion to deliver the 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025.
You will be pleased to know that I voted to back the next stage of the Government’s plan to tackle sewage pollution by further strengthening legal requirements under our landmark Environment Act. The Environment Act can be found here: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2021/30/contents/enacted
This 60-page plan prioritises investments in priority sites including protected habitats and bathing waters. Since then, £1.6 billion investment has been brought forward to speed up vital water infrastructure projects, cutting thousands of overflow spills each year. Further information on the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan can be found here: https://www.mimsdavies.org.uk/news/mims-davies-mp-welcomes-publication-storm-overflows-discharge-reduction-plan
More detail on plans to tackle storm overflows – as well as pollution from all other sources, including agriculture, chemicals and microplastics - is set out in the Plan for Water. More detail on the Plan for Water can be found here: https://www.mimsdavies.org.uk/news/mims-davies-mp-defra-announces-new-plan-water
Ministers also reconfirmed in the Chamber to the House that they will be unleashing unlimited penalties so that polluters pay for their impact on the environment, with funds now being reinvested into rivers and water bodies. The next step will place the target in the Sewage Overflow Reduction Plan on a statutory footing. The Plan will be put into law through the Environment Act 2021 which will make its costed and credible target to reduce storm overflows legally binding, in line with the Plan.
This will be backed by existing separate, interim milestones for bathing waters and high priority nature sites. Further information on this can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/storm-overflow-target-to-be-enshrined-in-law
This is the first Government to require the roll out of storm overflow monitoring, with now almost 90% coverage. This will reach 100% coverage by the end of this year.
It is because of this monitoring – increased from just 7% by this Government - that we are able to take action to clean up our water.
It is also worth remembering that we have amongst the highest-quality drinking water in the world, and 93% of our bathing waters are excellent.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats voted against ending sewage discharges and the Liberal Democrats have committed to introduce a tax on water companies which would take over 500 years to fund their sewage overflow plans. Social media is confusing and full of messages that support the Opposition’s narrative.
We are the only party with a clear, costed plan to deal with sewage overflows and tackle this serious issue. Nobody thinks sewage discharging into our rivers and seas is acceptable - we are delivering real change.
In opening the debate, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey MP, said: “We’ve brought forward stronger regulations, tougher enforcement and the largest water infrastructure programme in history – an expected £56 billion investment – and we will make fines unlimited so that the polluter always pays.”
The Minister for Environmental Quality and Resilience, Rebecca Pow MP, said: “It was this Government who uncovered the scandal of storm sewage overflows being used far too frequently, because it was this party that increased the monitoring of storm sewage overflows. We have ramped it up from a paltry 7% under Labour to 91% now, and it will be 100% by the end of the year. Our plan for water sets out how we will deliver the improvements we need across all matters connected to water, including all forms of pollution.”
The full transcript of the debate can be found here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2023-04-25/debates/E4C96653-FAC9-4AB7-A32B-7F5EA2423787/WaterQualitySewageDischarge
Finally, you will be interested to know that Sussex MPs recently met with the Chief Executives from Southern Water (Lawrence Gosden) and the Environment Agency (Sir James Bevan) to discuss sewage discharges into Sussex rivers and seas.
Chaired by Huw Merriman, MP for the Bexhill and Battle constituency, the meeting was called to discuss Government targets to reduce discharges from combined sewage overflows (CSOs) and water issues that are impacting their constituencies.
Sir James Bevan told MPs that water quality in the UK is, in fact, better than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. However, there is still much work to be done to end CSO discharges and monitor every discharge into waterways and the sea.
The Sussex MPs stressed the importance of this issue for their constituents and made clear that the ambition to reduce pollution incidents must be delivered: monitoring and enforcement of water companies to hold performance to account must be a priority.
All parties agreed CSOs were not the only cause of pollution; farming and road runoff are also important issues which need to be addressed. Southern Water told the MPs that following successful interventions in their pilot pathfinder areas, including real time smart control of sewer networks, highway drainage enhancements and development of public green spaces, that they will be looking to scale up the projects over a greater area.