Pathetic or progressive? Reaction to government's sewage U-turn
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A partial government U-turn on legislation regulating the discharge of sewage has divided opinion in Norfolk.
Last week, MPs rejected section 141A of Lords amendment 45 to the government’s environment bill, which would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to discharge waste into rivers and oceans.
Local MPs Peter Aldous, of Waveney, Duncan Baker, of North Norfolk, Jerome Mayhew, of Broadland, Chloe Smith, of Norwich North, and James Wild, of North West Norfolk, were among the 265 Conservative MPs who successfully voted in favour of rejecting section 141A.
After an outcry, most of those MPs have released statements in recent days defending their decision, arguing that section 141A would have been unfeasible to put into practice in its current form.
But in comments to broadcasters on Tuesday evening, environment secretary George Eustice said the government now supports water companies being required by law to show a reduction in sewage overspills over the next five years.
Jason Borthwick, owner of Deepdale Farm in Burnham Deepdale, said he was less than impressed by the new policy announcement.
“It’s a fairly pathetically veiled attempt to try and stave off a revolt by backbenchers, and it's actually probably more disingenuous than the original vote," he said.
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“It’s nothing. It’s not even a mild step in the right direction, really. It’s just formalising kicking the can down the road, quite frankly.
“It’s a reduction, but you could reduce by 1pc and you’d still be 99pc of where we were after five years - it’s pathetic.”
Great Ryburgh-based environmentalist Jennifer Lonsdale, a trustee and campaigner from the Environmental Investigations Agency, was more positive, however, and said: "I said [earlier this week] they needed to get back and negotiate instead of abandoning it, and they seem to be doing that, so I'm really pleased that the government is listening to the reaction to that vote and realising they've got to take this seriously."
Conservative MP Mr Baker welcomed the decision, and said: “I am delighted that we now appear to have a working solution in place.
“First thing yesterday morning I met with all the DEFRA ministers, the secretary of state and Philip Dunne [chair of the environmental audit committee] to discuss finding a remedy to rectify the problems of not being able to pass the Lords amendment last week.
“This does happen quite often when the Lords and the government ping pong back and forth until they can get a piece of law that can be voted through.
“We all wanted to absolutely clean up our water companies and work to eliminate storm overflows.
“I expect to now be able to vote through further strengthened provisions in the environment bill, which place a new legal duty directly on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impacts of storm overflow discharges, and provide enforcement of the duty by the secretary of state, or OFWAT [the Water Services Regulation Authority].
“This is a really progressive step forward and something many of us behind the scenes have been working hard to achieve."
Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, said: “As welcome as this u-turn is, we will be back here or in a very similar place again very soon.
“The furore over a discharge of sewage in rivers and the sea is a consequence of 20 to 30 years of mismanagement of the water and sewage industry, where valuable resources that should have gone into infrastructure have actually gone into paying dividends to shareholders, time and time again.
“The Tories show no sign of fixing the root cause of this particular problem and until they do that, we will find ourselves back here again.”
On Tuesday, prime minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson criticised the current “failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges [as] unacceptable” and said a commitment to make them take all reasonable steps to do so would be put on a statutory footing.