'Sewerage issue is more complex that it appears'

Opposition MPs wear masks while Boris Johnson's front bench go without

The environment bill has been hotly debated. It will return to parliament next week.  - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

In his monthly column, North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker writes about a controversial environment bill which is currently before parliament. 

Last week, the Duke of Wellington hit the headlines with his Amendment 45 in the House of Lords.

It sparked a national debate, but in this column let’s take a step back and really understand what the issue is all about.

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker. Picture: Supplied by Duncan Baker

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker - Credit: Duncan Baker

Our roads and ditches were once our sewers. Then the Victorians built sewerage systems across the country, a monumental achievement which benefits us to this day. But almost everywhere there is just one system of pipes, that takes both rainwater from drains and sewage from homes.

When there are storms, so much rainwater enters the sewerage system that they can no longer contain it all.

CAPTION; Photos of North and South Creake for EDP NORFOLK Village Focus. Pic shows the River Burn ru

The River Burn running through South Creake. Flood water gets pumped into the river when the sewerage system is overwhelmed.  - Credit: Matthew Usher

The mixed rainwater and untreated sewage then overflows into rivers, as the only alternative would be the water backing up risking flooding people’s homes with raw sewage.

Even so the reality is that 97pc of sewerage discharge into rivers or the sea, is actually rainwater.
This sewage overflow happened 400,000 times last year, in almost every area of the country.

I sit on the Environmental Audit Select Committee and we are conducting a select committee inquiry into just this matter.

We all want to improve our water quality and we are doing just that. I backed my good
friend Philip Dunne MP’s private members bill on the matter and the government has brought into legislation almost all his asks.

Sewage is discussed on Radio 4 today

There were 17,000 spills from the sewage system in the region covered by Anglian Water in 2020. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Sewage discharges have been a source of outrage for decades, but successive governments have put it in the “too difficult” box.

This is because stopping sewage discharges requires a major change to
infrastructure in almost every town and village in the country.

The cost of this national infrastructure change is estimated to be between £150 billion and £650 billion.

By comparison, £150 billion is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together, and £650 billion is considerably more than the government support spent during the coronavirus pandemic.

It would bankrupt most water companies unless consumers or taxpayers contribute. The cost works out at between about £5,000 and £20,000 per household – cleaning up costs money, but I certainly want to see such measures as water company bosses’ bonuses and pay docked if they fail to clean up their act.

But I am glad to say, we now have a route out of this quagmire. Last year, the Government set up the Storm Overflows Taskforce, to bring together key stakeholders from the water industry, environmental NGOs and regulators, in order to drive progress in reducing sewage discharges.

The taskforce has agreed a goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows.
We are now legislating to achieve this through the landmark environment bill.

It has caused heated debate in parliament over two different approaches proposed.

The first would effectively ban sewerage discharges, but it came with no plan to implement it, pay for it, or look at the consequences in terms of flooding in homes, higher bills, bankrupting water companies or deluging them under a
tidal wave of court cases.

It would have been like getting every house to stop burning gas by making it illegal to turn on gas boilers, without considering the consequences. No responsible government could pass such an amendment.

Instead, the Government passed a comprehensive package of measures to finally bring about an end to sewage discharges.

Most significantly, the Government will be required by law to present to Parliament by next September a detailed plan showing how it will eliminate sewage discharges, with
a separate report on the “mechanics” of how to achieve it.

This is absolutely essential, as it will provide everyone with up-front, clear and comprehensive information on the cost and impact of eliminating storm overflows.

We need to know, for example, what are the biggest improvements we could make
most quickly.
It is now our turn to do what the Victorians did, and radically overhaul our outdated water and sewage infrastructure.

What we need now is the long, detailed, practical work required to deliver these
ambitions.

I was also pleased to support amendments to take firm and immediate action to tackle
storm overflows in the short-term. This includes a new duty on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory drainage and sewerage management plans setting out how storm overflows will be addressed.

For the first time, the Government will tell Ofwat, the industry’s regulator, that it
must require water companies to take steps to “significantly reduce storm overflows”, and to approve funding for them to do so.

All new developments will have to be built with sewage systems that can survive storms without discharging sewage.

There will also be a new duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish detailed data on storm overflows and to continuously monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow.

After over a century of suffering sewage discharges, we are finally tackling this disgusting problem.

Our rivers and streams will be cleaner and healthier. The Government is due to table its own amendment on the bill on Monday, November 8.

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