Today
Sun 5 December 2021

A new report which shows an 87.6% increase in sewage notifications since last October also reveals the pollution of Britain’s rivers and seas is disproportionately affecting Conservative-voting seats

More than half of the most polluted waters in the UK are represented by Conservative MPs who voted down an amendment to the environment bill that would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to pump sewage waste into rivers.

The amendment was initially rejected in Parliament last month after only 22 Conservatives rebelled after the environment secretary, George Eustice, recommended the party’s MPs vote against it. 

The angry backlash from constituents took some Conservative MPs by surprise and prompted an embarrassing Government U-turn. A compromise to the bill followed that subsequently secured the backing of Conservative rebels.

But Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), part of a coalition of clean water campaigners that had pushed for the amendment, said the compromise was still too weak and did not impose a legal duty on water companies to stop releasing raw sewage into waterways.

The Government maintains that the bill will bring about reductions. In 2020, water companies released raw sewage into rivers more than 400,000 times over a total of 3.1m hours, according to the Environment Agency (EA). 

New research by SAS, published today, details the number of sewer overflow discharge notifications issued over the 12-month period from 1 October 2020 to 30 September 2021, using data accessed from water companies via SAS’ Safer Seas & Rivers Service (SSRS). 

More than 5,500 sewage discharge notifications were issued by water companies over this period, an increase of 87.6%. Of these alerts, 3,328 were issued during the bathing season between May and September.

The report notes that while sewer overflows can be an important part of the safe management of sewage systems in exceptional circumstances, increasing instances of discharge notifications are being issued at times many would consider extreme under normal conditions.

SAS said the actual figures are likely to be much higher as data is only available for coastal waters and some companies only provide updates during the bathing season. 


Worst Affected Constituencies

The report identifies 37 locations across the country that are either the worst affected by sewage discharges or featured the most health reports by location, measured by the number of users being ill after entering the water.

Evidence collected by SAS found one in six days have been rendered “unswimmable” due to sewage pollution during the official bathing season alone, and one in three reports of sickness after bathing were connected to pollution events.

In addition, six out of eight rivers tested by SAS had elevated E. coli levels and pose a continuous serious risk to human health. The UK currently has just one designated river bathing water. 

Using constituency data provided by Maproom, Byline Times was able to plot the 37 worst affected areas across just 27 constituencies. Of those, 16 MPs voted with the Government during last month’s sewage vote, six voted against and five didn’t vote. 

Two of those areas, Porthtowan and Gwithian Towens, are in environment minister George Eustice’s constituency of Camborne and Redruth. He did not respond to a request for comment. 

Poldhu Cove is a west-facing sandy beach in West Cornwall and St Ives represented by Conservative MP Derek Thomas. It ranks amongst the top 20 locations for poor health reports. He originally voted against the Government. 

But in response to SAS’ latest report, Thomas praised his colleagues for securing what he described as a “world-leading and ambitious” Environment Act that “went even further to include a legally-binding requirement for water companies to cut the amount of foul water entering our waterways and seas”.

Labour MP and Shadow Environment Minister Luke Pollard, who voted along party lines against the Government, did not think the act went far enough. A keen wild swimmer in his Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency, he told Byline Times he wasn’t surprised to hear that sewage discharges had increased.

He said: “The compromise amendment that was passed was not strong enough and doesn’t give companies a timetable to invest and update the sewage system against. It will do something but nowhere near what is needed.”

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Pollard said the fact it takes on average five years for the EA to administer fines is a reflection of a lack of resources and called for a “hike in fines” for water companies. “The government has not required these companies to invest in the system which is why we have this sewage scandal,” he added. 

The EA welcomed the latest SAS report. “We have been increasing the transparency and monitoring of sewage spills in order to tackle it more effectively and drive the improvements that we all want to see,” said a spokesperson.

“Monitoring has increased 14-fold over the last five years and for the first time this year, we published data on the frequency and duration of all sewage spills across the country.”

“While 93% of bathing waters are classed as good or excellent – up from 28% in the 1990s – there is clearly much more to do and we continue to work with all those who want to be a part of the solution.”


The Biggest Culprits

Water companies are currently under investigation by financial and environmental watchdogs the Environment Agency and Ofwat after they admitted they may have illegally released untreated sewage into rivers and waterways.

According to the report, Southern Water, followed by South West and Wessex Water saw the largest year-on-year increases for sewage discharges but Southern was by far the biggest culprit.

Over the course of the bathing season alone a total of 1,949 sewage discharge notifications were issued by the company and almost 30% of the 286 health reports submitted this year came from the company’s operating area.

Southern said it knows its performance has to improve and has committed to spending £2 billion to cut pollution incidents by 80 per cent by 2025. Industry trade body Water UK said companies recognise the urgent need for action to protect and enhance the UK’s rivers and seas but this must be done in collaboration between industry, government, regulators and other stakeholders.

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of SAS, said concern has so far failed to turn into action and the loopholes in the law and systematically defunded regulators had let water companies run amok.

“The fact is, water companies continue to increase profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequence,” he said. “Instead, eyewatering sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and huge pay packets are enjoyed by CEOs.”

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