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The Affluent and the Effluent: Conservative Environment Secretary Slammed for ‘Lack of Leadership’ and ‘Complacency’

From growing sewage pollution to rising water bills and lack of investment, Lord Hollick criticises Therese Coffey’s failure to address a Lords report

Therese Coffey, Environment Secretary. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy

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Therese Coffey, the Environment Secretary, is accused in a letter today of a “lack of leadership and deep-rooted complacency” over the regulation of the water industry by Lord Hollick, the peer who chairs the Lords industry and regulatory committee.

 His criticism follows a damning report by his committee, ‘The affluent and the effluent: cleaning up the failures of water regulation’, which was largely dismissed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs earlier this year.

The peers were accused by the ministry of exceeding their brief by commenting on growing sewage pollution, lack of cash to improve water infrastructure and warning of future water shortages and rising water bills.

The result is a robust letter from the peer which says: “We object to the apparent insinuation that our conclusions and recommendations were outside the scope of our inquiry, which appears to be an attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.”

The letter comes as the latest statistics paint a huge deterioration in water quality and a big rise in polluted beaches and rivers. There were 62 instances of serious pollution alerts by water companies in 2021 – the highest since 2013; there were 5,500 instances of raw sewage dumped into “safe” bathing beaches last year and 75 per cent of all rivers are polluted with only 14 per cent of rivers in good health.

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 Lord Hollick says today: “While the Government has begun to set out its vision for the sector, our cross-party committee has concluded unanimously that there is insufficient policy or drive to meet the Government’s targets. Sadly, the only thing that is becoming clear in the murky, polluted waters of the sewage crisis is a lack of leadership and deep-rooted complacency.

 “The Government must therefore provide firmer policy detail and greater guidance to regulators, who cannot be left to resolve these huge challenges by themselves. In particular, the Government must give clear guidance on the trade-off between much-needed investment and the level of customer bills. We look forward to the response from the Secretary of State, setting out how she intends to do this.”

The letter repeats the need for a national social tariff for water bills for the poorest people to combat the cost of living crisis. The idea was firmly rejected by Ms Coffey this year. The letter says that rising bills will be inevitable because of the huge investment to rectify sewage pollution. Some £56 billion is required by 2050 to do this but only £10 billion has been offered by the industry by 2030. Water bills are expected to rise to pay for this but the Government is yet to give an indication by how much.

 Lord Hollick points out that such investment is likely to have to compete with building new reservoirs to prevent a future water shortage. The last reservoir was opened in 1991 and no new reservoir is planned until 2029.


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Peers are also highly critical of the Government’s failure to ban wet wipes being dumped in rivers – adding to plastic pollution.

“We are dismayed that the Government has delayed the implementation of its proposed ban on the sale of wet wipes containing plastics by announcing a second consultation. The Government has already consulted on this issue and found clear public support for the proposal. Further delay is unnecessary and deeply damaging to the environment.”

Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, challenged Rishi Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions last week to name a date when the ban could come into force but he declined to do so until the result of a further consultation.

A Defra spokesperson told Byline Times:  “We take our oversight of the water industry incredibly seriously and firmly disagree with these conclusions.

“We are delivering increased investment, stronger regulation, and tougher enforcement right across the sector. This includes being the first government to set ambitious targets for water companies to address storm overflows, which the High Court has ruled go even further than existing law. “We agree that more needs to be done. That’s why we are introducing unlimited penalties for polluters, driving the largest infrastructure programme in water company history, and have set clear expectations for water companies to deliver the changes that we all want to see.”

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