Philip Dunne is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Ludlow.
Britain’s rivers have historically provided habitats for our wildlife, pleasure to our population, as well as coursing through our culture. They flow throughout our folklore and literature as well as invigorating our famous green landscapes.
For centuries our rivers were the bedrock of farming and trade, critical to the growth of our towns and cities, and loved by many.
But today our rivers are in a deplorable and sorry state, with just 14 per cent in a ‘good’ ecological condition – a long way from the ambition set in the 25 Year Environment Plan to return at least three quarters of our waters to their natural state.
This is simply not good enough. I have always believed we need to leave our own part of the planet in a better condition than we found it. So this is why I am tabling a Bill in Parliament to tackle one of the prime causes of persistent pollution of our rivers.
It is frankly shocking that, in the 21st Century, 40 per cent of all our rivers in England and Wales are polluted with human sewage, now threatening our own health as well as the aquatic species who live in them. Much of this pollution enters our rivers when wastewater is discharged from the very sewage treatment works whose purpose is to clean it up.
In part this is because regulations have not kept up to date with changes in behaviour and pressure from development, so now pollutants enter our rivers untreated.
During periods of ‘unusually heavy’ rainfall the capacity of the sewer network is widely acknowledged to be incapable of coping. To avoid flooding sewage over farmland, streets or properties, the Environment Agency grants permits for untreated sewage to discharge directly into our rivers.
Shocking as this sounds, it is meant to be for brief periods of time, through the 18,000 treatment plants designated Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). But last year, there were over 200,000 CSO events spilling raw sewage into rivers across England for over 1.5 million hours.
Sewage contains high levels of phosphate, an effective fertiliser, which fuels rapid algae growth, starving the river of oxygen and suffocating aquatic species. Untreated sewage also contains harmful bacteria and pathogens which threaten human health. The damage is leaving our rivers in a critical state – including the chalk streams which constitute one of this planet’s most precious habitats and are almost only found in England.
But there is something we can do to avoid this. I take inspiration from Sir David Attenborough’s belief that we can change the course of our interaction with nature. As Conservatives in particular, we can make a clear decision to conserve our rivers and change the impact we make on them through our own actions and regulations.
To start with, I applaud the action the Government is taking through the landmark Environment Bill, returning to committee in the Commons very soon. This legislation includes for the first time a requirement for water companies to publish a drainage and sewerage management plan every five years. I have tabled an amendment to this Bill to strengthen these plans explicitly to cover water quality and the impact of pollution from sewage. I hope this will help inform debate around the Government’s very welcome plans to set a target for water companies to reduce discharge of phosphate.
My Private Member’s Bill, published today, goes further. This contains a suite of measures to address the extensive failings in regulation, enforcement, transparency, investment, and infrastructure which drives the contamination of our rivers with wastewater. We need water companies to be more transparent and encouraged to monitor, report and mitigate wastewater discharges better.
We also need to make our rivers fit for recreation, particularly given the renewed enthusiasm for ‘wild swimming’ during the Covid pandemic. My Bill calls for each water company to reach bathing quality standard on two inland waters a year. By improving the ecological health of our rivers, we could deliver – in relatively short timescales – huge benefits for wildlife and biodiversity as well.
The Environment Bill requires the Government to set legally binding targets to improve the health of our water bodies. To ensure these targets are delivered promptly the new Office for Environmental Protection must be in place swiftly as we exit the Brexit transition period. It must have the necessary independence and enforcement mechanisms to hold public bodies and ministers to account.
We also need to ensure the Environment Agency has sufficient resources to work with communities in fulfilling its role, and political support to uphold standards where water companies fail to comply.
I accept that these improvements won’t be cost-free. So I have proposed that Ofwat’s objectives should allow capital investment in improving water quality to be eligible under the five yearly pricing review mechanism.
Our rivers are an integral part of our natural heritage: a refuge for people and wildlife, while also supplying the essential water upon which we all depend. If we are to fulfil our obligation to leave the environment in a better state for future generations, we must act now to clean up our rivers.