Thank you for contacting me about the Lords Amendment to the Environment Bill regarding storm overflows and sewage in our rivers. Of course no one wants sewage entering our precious waterways – I certainly do not.
I think given the controversy stoked up about this vote, that bears repeating: neither I nor anyone else who cares for our environment approves of sewage entering our rivers. I regret that once again public opinion has been inflamed over a vote on an amendment, without any wider context to the debate.
The fundamental problem with the amendment was it implied a complete transformation of our sewage system at a cost of £150 billion to £650 billion. To put that in perspective, £150 billion is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together. And £650 billion is billions more than we have spent on supporting livelihoods and jobs throughout the health pandemic. It would have been reckless and wrong for me to rebel to support this amendment. Such measures must be led by ministers.
The issue of storm overflows, sewage and our rivers is very much alive in Parliament, where many of us have made a range of representations on the issue. I am pleased that the Government did insert a range of other amendments to the Environment Bill to address concerns about storm overflows:
• Minister Rebecca Pow confirmed that the Government has moved considerably on this matter, more than any other matter in the Bill, and is confident the existing provisions will achieve progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows, underpinned by the new direction to Ofwat, in the Government’s draft Strategic Policy Statement, that the Government expects Ofwat to incentivise water companies to significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows.?
• The Bill also now requires the Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges, and report to Parliament on progress.?
• The Environment Agency and water companies are now required to publish annual information on discharges, and water companies are to provide near real time overflow data (within 1 hour) of the commencement of an overflow, its location and when it ceases. In addition, water companies will now be required to continuously monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of an overflow and of sewage disposal works, as well as to produce comprehensive statutory plans (Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans) for the resilience of their wastewater networks.?
•?The Government will also be required to publish a report considering the costs and benefits of eliminating flows entirely?before 1 September 2022, which will inform Government
decision-making and explaining the actions needed to eliminate storm overflows. I believe this to be essential as it will provide Parliament and the public with comprehensive information on the cost and impact of eliminating overflows – we will then fully understand how best we can tackle storm overflows.
I also welcome that the Government will undertake a review of legislation which would require Sustainable Drainage Systems to be constructed on new developments, which would reduce the pressure on the sewage system.?
We voted in favour of a range of measures to take immediate steps to address storm overflows, together with a legal duty on the Government to produce detailed and, importantly, costed plans for reducing and eliminating storm overflows. Any suggestion that I and other MPs are not taking firm action on storm overflows is false.
I am satisfied the measures proposed by the Government and voted upon, in response to the concerns that I and many MPs have raised, will achieve the required outcome – of eliminating untreated sewage discharges into our rivers and along our coastline.
Locally, I will continue to pressure Thames Water to deliver the urgent infrastructure upgrades which are needed in the Wycombe constituency. Along with local residents I have been speaking to Thames Water about sewage backing-up in residents’ homes, and storm discharge into Hambleden Brook, at Hambleden and at Mill End. I know this has been an issue of longstanding, serious concern, and I am hopeful the problem will be addressed within months.
I can assure you all discharges by a water company require a permit issued by the Environment Agency. Such permits ensure discharges only occur under strict permitted conditions. Where discharges occur outside these conditions the Environment Agency investigates and takes appropriate action including enforcement action if needed. This action has resulted in more than 48 prosecutions against water companies in the last six years.
Thanks again for writing to me. I appreciate the opportunity to set out the situation. I regret the excessive politicisation this crucial issue has suffered.