Government u-turn over controversial sewage vote
- Credit: Nick Butcher
The government has climbed down over refusing to implement legal controls on water companies to prevent them from dumping raw sewage into rivers and seas, including those in Norfolk and Suffolk, after a backlash.
Labour has accused ministers of conducting a U-turn in the face of public anger after Conservative MPs were last week whipped to vote down an amendment to the Environment Bill that would have placed legal obligations on water companies to stop polluting England’s waterways during heavy rainfall.
Of East Anglia's MPs, only Labour's Clive Lewis voted in favour of the amendment, while Conservatives Richard Bacon, George Freeman, Brandon Lewis and Liz Truss were absent for the vote.
Peter Aldous, Duncan Baker, Jerome Mayhew, Chloe Smith and James Wild all voted to remove the amendment.
But, despite ordering MPs to defeat the proposal, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Tuesday said the bill would be “further strengthened” as it looks to put in place a “duty enshrined in law” to ensure water companies “secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows”.
Defra’s climbdown comes only hours after Downing Street had defended the decision to whip against last week’s amendment.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was “not right to sign a blank cheque on behalf of customers” after the government put the cost of delivering on the terms of the Commons amendment at more than £150 billion.
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But environment secretary George Eustice has admitted that the government’s proposed change to the Environment Bill will still result in rising household water bills.
Sewage can be pumped out of the sewerage system and into rivers through combined sewer overflows – otherwise known as a storm overflow or release valve.
The overflows are designed to release excess water following heavy rain or a storm to stop sewage backing up into homes.
To stop this happening, water companies are allowed to release the rainwater and a smaller amount of untreated sewage, into the country’s waterways.
The Environment Agency has reported that, in the last year, raw sewage was discharged into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times, which Defra has branded “unacceptable”.
In 2020, sewage spilled into the River Waveney at Beccles 21 times for a total of 86 hours, while unhealthy amounts of sewage were also found in the river at Bungay in the Nethergate Street area.
Further discharges were also found at Marsh Lane in Kessingland, both the outer and inner harbour in Lowestoft, and at Belvedere Road, in Lowestoft, where sewage spilled into the river 11 times for a total of nine hours in 2020.
Caroline Topping, a councillor Beccles and Worlingham on East Suffolk Council, hit out at the vote earlier this week.
She said: "The River Waveney is the jewel in Beccles' crown. It is our beach, one of our main tourist attractions.
"If we cannot protect our river from this disgusting misuse, then our jewel is under serious threat."
Mr Aldous, Waveney MP, 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."
In a Facebook post following the controversial vote, Mr Baker, North Norfolk MP, wrote that the amendment was something “which in theory we all agree with but in practice our sewage systems work by allowing discharges in extreme rainfall to prevent flooding.
“To ban these completely would mean most of the sewage system in the country would have to be reinstalled and in some cases with gradients it would not be possible to get a sewage system in place without a discharge release so a legal ban would mean sewage would be discharged onto pavements, fields, parks etc instead."