Over the past several months, many local people have raised their concerns about the standards of our waterways. I know many are, quite rightly, concerned at reports of sewage being discharged into our rivers.
In Wycombe, our water is managed by Thames Water. In the region operated by Thames Water, 86% of bathing waters were rated Good or Excellent in 2022 but pollution incidents have been significant. Since 2010, the company has been made to pay over £35 million for failing to meet environmental standards.
Of course, none of us want to see sewage entering our precious waterways. Ministers have long been clear that the volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is unacceptable, which is why the Government has announced our Plan for Water.
The Plan for Water sets out a package of more investment, stronger regulation, and tougher enforcement to tackle river and sea pollution at its source.
First, the Government has committed to increased investment in our water systems. As part of the Plan for Water, the Government has accelerated over £2.2 billion of investment towards infrastructure which will improve water quality and secure future supplies. £1.7 billion of this investment will be used to tackle storm overflows, of which there are 777 in the Thames Water region.
Second, the Government has committed to stronger regulation. The Government has increased monitoring of storm overflows in recent years, which will ensure that water companies such as Thames Water cannot profit from environmental damage and that company dividends and executive bonuses are linked to environmental and company performance. These measures will be enforced by an array of increased powers granted to Ofwat.
Finally, the Government is cracking down on water companies with tougher enforcement of existing regulations. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 65 prosecutions, securing record fines of over £150 million against water companies. The Environment Agency has also launched the largest criminal investigation into unpermitted water company sewage discharges ever at over 2,200 treatment works.
Additionally, the Government is also scrapping the cap on civil penalties and significantly broadening their scope to target a much wider range of offences. All of these measures will reduce the pollution in our waterways and severely punish water companies that pollute.
When there has been so much progress over so many years, I regret very much that this issue has been so profoundly politicised. It is sad to see that on an issue which should not be partly political, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have abandoned honest debate in favour of untruths and disingenuous solutions which not only would not work but which have also scared the public.
For instance, some have suggested that sewage discharges have become more common, and even that the Government has legalised the dumping of sewage. Neither is true.
There has been no increase in the levels of discharges. However, one of the reasons that there are more reports of these discharges is that the government has required water companies to monitor more of their overflow pipes. In 2016, only 800 were monitored, but by 2020, over 12,000 were. Water companies are obliged to monitor all 15,000 by the end of this year.
Similarly, the discharge of sewage from storm overflows remains subject to strict rules under the Urban Wastewater Treatment Regulations, which have not changed, and have been the case since before Royal Assent of the Environment Act. Storm overflows should only be used under strict permit conditions.
Some have questioned why these storm overflows are not immediately stopped, as has been suggested by the Liberal Democrats. However, discharges are an automatic and essential part of our sewerage system, which is activated by gravity when capacity is reached. If it were possible to simply switch them off, to do so would mean sewage backing up into people’s homes, businesses, and the street. Tragically, but not uncharacteristically, the Liberal Democrats have been touting an unworkable solution to scare the public and score party political points.
Similarly, Labour has called for mandatory monitoring and a 90% reduction in discharges by 2030. Mandatory monitoring has already been introduced by a Conservative government, and the reduction of 90% by 2030 is simply not possible without causing enormous disruption and increasing annual water bills by up to £1000 for working people in Wycombe and across the country.
If Labour had a credible plan for tackling storm overflows, they would have already implemented it in Labour-run Wales, where sewage is being discharged almost twice as often as in England. Likewise, the Liberal Democrats’ plan to introduce a 16% sewage tax would mean that, at current levels of water company profits, ending sewage discharges would take some 500 years.
I know that many in Wycombe remain concerned about reports of sewage being released into our waterways. The Government is working at pace to address unacceptable levels of discharge, while not causing needless disruption and protecting working families from significantly higher water bills.