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Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall has voted with the Government to reject an attempt by the House of Lords to toughen up the approach to the discharge of sewage into our waterways.
*UPDATE: The Government have performed a "partial U-turn" over the sewage amendment after Tory rebels threatened to scupper an upcoming vote in the Commons. Under new rules, there will be a duty on water companies to reduce the impact of sewage discharges from storm overflows. This means the organisations will be required by law to show a reduction in sewage overspills over the next five years.*
The amendment to the Environment Bill would have forced water companies and the government to demonstrate progressive reductions in discharges of untreated sewage and required them to "take all reasonable steps" to avoid using combined sewer overflows.
While 22 Conservative MPs rebelled and voted against the Government, many who voted against the amendment to the Environment Bill have defended their actions by saying that “safeguards are already contained in the bill”.
With just over a week to go until the UK hosts the COP26 climate summit, there is intense focus on ministers' green credentials.
Other dissenters from the amendment, like Conservative MP Julie Marson, who voted against the amendment, said "there is a lot of misinformation floating about" and the “preliminary cost of the required infrastructure change was estimated to be between £150bn and £650bn”.
She said: “Unless we asked taxpayers to contribute, most of the water companies who would be carrying out this work would go bankrupt, meaning the work could not be completed anyway.”
The issue is that this work should have been done over the three decades that the private water companies have been privatised, as a report by The Guardian notes that English water companies have handed more than £2bn a year on average to shareholders since they were privatised three decades ago. The earnings of the nine water companies’ highest-paid directors rose by 8.8 per cent last year, to a total of £12.9m. The highest paid CEOs were at Severn Trent, with a salary package of £2.4m, and United Utilities, with a salary package of £2.3m.
In comparison, the highest paid director of publicly owned Scottish Water earned £366,000.
Ellen Lees of the campaign group We Own It said: “Rather than paying out billions to shareholders, the water companies could have been investing in the infrastructure the system needs,” she said.
“It’s time to put an end to this farce that is ripping off the public and ruining our environment. It’s time to bring our water into public ownership.”
Mr Mangnall MP replied on Friday evening, saying: "As a Conservative Environment Network member and a keen conservationist who regularly promotes methods such as regenerative agriculture, I would never support a bill that harms our waterways, coastline or rivers.
"The Environment Bill is a landmark piece of legislation which, when passed into law, will ensure that more emphasis and work is placed on improving our landscapes, our environment and protecting biodiversity, as well as updating and modernising the infrastructure that we currently depend upon. The Government has been working on the Environment Bill for quite some time and has moved considerably to incorporate new aspects that will help reduce storm overflows.
"The vote last week on the Lord’s Amendment was contentious, because while on the face of it, it employed the sensible concept of the polluter paying, it also had serious ramifications that could have seen huge costs passed on to the British public. Estimates range between £150 billion and £650 billion.
"Passing such an amendment without the proper plan and due diligence in place, would have been catastrophic. However, it is important to note that the Bill continues to be amended, and in response to last week’s vote, we have successfully enhanced the Bill to include a new amendment, that will see a duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in discharges from storm overflows.
"All told, the Environment Bill now contains six pages of provision to reduce sewage and storm overflows. No bill has been passed in the last thirty years that is as comprehensive in addressing this matter.
"I am very much committed to cleaning our waters, and with a vibrant fishing, aquaculture and farming community in South Devon, I know the positive impact that solving this issue will have.
"I speak regularly to South West Water and I will be arranging an open meeting with them to discuss their network and what steps they are taking to clean our rivers, improve the network and protect our coastline.”
The scale of the problem is enormous, with figures published by the Environment Agency showing that water companies discharged raw sewage in England more than 400,000 times in 2020. The same report also showed that untreated effluent, “including human waste, wet wipes and condoms”, was released into waterways for “more than three million hours in 2020”. South West Water made up 375,372 hours of that.
The Environment Agency allows water utilities to release sewage into rivers and streams “after extreme weather events such as prolonged heavy rain”.
A government spokesperson said the amount of sewage discharge by water companies into rivers was "not acceptable".
The spokesman added: "We have made it crystal clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority.”
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