A Lib Dem Perspective - Not such a small drop in our polluted ocean.

25 Oct 2023
Two large drinks bottles of raw sewage

Just imagine running a nice warm bath, and then before lowering yourself into it, pouring in two large drinks bottles of raw sewage. Disgusting and unthinkable. Yet that is the dilution rate that Southern Water have effectively admitted to when they’ve claimed overflows are ‘95% rainwater’.  It sounds rather worse the other way around, doesn’t it? Would their Chief Executive happily swim in that outflow?

Across the UK 22,000 of our sewers combine rainwater from surface drains as well as foul water from homes and industry. These combined sewer overflows (CSOs) should only overspill when there is exceptionally heavy rainfall and the system is overwhelmed. Yet in 2020 nearly half of all CSOs spilled nearly every fortnight, and in 2021-22 there were over 775,000 overflows of raw sewage (Environment Agency figures). Monitoring of CSOs only started to be introduced in 2016 and although due to be completed this year there are still around 3,000 monitors to go, so we still don’t have reliable total figures.

The effects of raw sewage spills from storm overflows into our rivers and coastal waters are devastating for nature. They cause algal blooms and lower oxygen levels, kill freshwater wildlife, and threaten our coastal economies, both fishing and leisure. And the problem is not just sewage. Our waste water, industrial plants, agriculture and road run offs all add to a potentially toxic mixture of chemicals and microplastics, the quantities and effects of which are largely unknown.

After decades of under-investment in maintenance and improvement, excessive dividends and unwarranted executives’ bonuses, our waste water systems require billions of pounds of investment. Under the Government’s current proposals 86% of CSOs will still be spilling sewage unimproved by 2030. Water companies are proposing to raise £10bn by 2030 from customers, leaving their bonuses and dividends unaffected. But by contrast a recent government-led taskforce calculated that eliminating CSOs altogether would cost between £350bn-£600bn, increasing annual household bills by £569-£999. So £10bn is a very small drop in a large and polluted ocean.     

The recent Liberal Democrat Conference adopted a much more assertive approach. We would set stringent targets and deadlines for water companies to end most sewage discharges by 2030 focusing first on the most sensitive areas. We would introduce a Sewage Tax on water company profits to fund the clean-up and replace the ineffective Ofwat with a new regulator with stronger powers to restrict dividends and bonuses for under-performing companies. Every water and sewage company would have to publish details of discharge permits and real time data on spill duration, volume and water quality. We would transform water companies into public benefit companies with strong environmental policy objectives, and add local environmental groups to water company boards. All of these improvements could be implemented now if only the government wished to.

We all know how government bodies love acronyms, and the obvious acronym for Water Companies is, of course, WCs. I’ll say no more!

Cllr Kathryn Field

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