There have been an enormous number of half-truths and misconceptions spread about over the weekend about the Environment Bill and storm overflows.
It is not true that I have done nothing to limit discharge into our oceans and rivers. I want to take this opportunity to outline my efforts to secure important changes that better protect our oceans and waterways.
- We have a combined sewer system in this country, meaning rainwater and sewage both flow into it. It is not a coincidence that discharges happen most often during or after a storm.
- If this additional pressure is not discharged the wastewater – including sewage – will back up into the streets and into people’s homes. This is not hyperbolic; it is a fact.
- The age of this Victorian sewerage system means that the complete elimination of storm overflows would be extremely challenging. Unfortunately, they have always been a part of our wastewater infrastructure and until now little action has been taken by any government or party.
- In the new Environment Bill, Sewerage undertakers will now be required to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans.
- The Government has also given ground as a result of our efforts. I supported amendments to the Bill that will require the government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from overflows and the harm they cause.
- I backed further amendments at Report stage that will place new duties on water companies to require them to report overflows in near real time, and to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of an overflow and of sewage disposal works. This work will now be carried out 365 days a year – not just in summer months.
- I also supported the Storm Overflows Taskforce, whose work has led to water companies committing to invest £3.1 billion between 2020 and 2025 to reduce sewage discharges to our waters.
- However, one of the recent Lords Amendments would have required extensive work to be done to eliminate sewage discharges, and I was one of several hundred MPs who opposed it. Initial estimates of the work necessary to achieve this are in the region of £150 billion to £600 billion.
- To put that in perspective, the smaller figure is more than the entire budget of the NHS. These costs would inevitably be passed onto taxpayers or water bill payers. No sensible legislator could have backed this.
- I am of the view that the water companies should foot the bill for improvements over time and not the taxpayer, so these improvements must be manageable.
- In 2018 I presented my Bathing Waters Bill to the House – This legislation did not make it through to law during the previous Parliament due to the early election in 2019.
- However, some of what I suggested in my 2018 Bill has now been taken up by the Government in the Environment Bill. This includes ensuring that overflows are monitored all year round and reported in near real-time. Many of the recommendations made by my colleague Phillip Dunne in his Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill that aim to protect our inland waterways have also been adopted.
- Politics is about delivering positive change by focusing on what it’s realistically possible to achieve and compromising where necessary. That’s why I think the measures in the Environment Bill are now an acceptable compromise that have the potential to be built on in future, and I am proud to give the amended Bill my wholehearted support.
- Going forward, I think there is more work to be done on household and commercial rainwater recycling. For example, fitting an average size 250-litre water butt to every one of the approximately 25 million dwellings in England would prevent many billions of litres of rainwater flowing into our sewage system, reducing overflows during heavy rain and providing households with free water to use in gardening or cleaning.
- These types of measures might seem small, but when scaled up across the entire country they can make a difference. With this in mind, I next plan to push for better regulations around rainwater recycling in the upcoming Planning Bill.
I wanted to explain my position fully on this important matter.