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Rivers: Discharges

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered discharges into rivers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I am pleased to have the opportunity today to discuss the issue of discharges into rivers.

My constituency of Blaydon is bounded on the north by the River Tyne, and on the south and west by the River Derwent, which marks the border with County Durham. Across the constituency, there are other inland waterways, including the River Tees. Our long industrial history has, over the years, taken its toll on our rivers, but thankfully much work has been done to make our rivers cleaner and more pleasant.

As I walk along the Keelman’s Way, alongside the River Tyne, from Clara Vale, past Ryton and Stella, to Blaydon, the river is tidal at that point. In less difficult times than the present, it is a real pleasure to see so many people enjoying the river, watching the wildlife, looking out for the seals and rowing on the river, from the rowing clubs that have grown up alongside the riverbank. At Blackhall Mill, on the County Durham border, there are green and pleasant riverbanks, enjoyed by the community.

Although Blaydon is not a coastal constituency, we can see how our rivers flow into the sea, and the vital link between the health of our local waterways and the health of our seas and oceans. Not far away from us, we have wonderful coastal beaches, so keeping our rivers clean and healthy, and free from sewage, is important to us.

Last year, I was shocked to see, in information circulated by Surfers Against Sewage, the number of discharges of sewage into rivers all over the country through combined sewage overflows. Many were permitted, but many were accidental. As Surfers Against Sewage say:

“CSOs are emergency infrastructure assets permitted to discharge untreated wastewater.”

CSOs are permitted to work only under periods defined in the original EU urban wastewater directive as “unusually heavy rainfall.” Surfers Against Sewage go on to say:

“CSOs are an essential part of our sewage infrastructure designed to prevent sewage backing up into homes when there is an extreme rainfall event.”

However, recent research by many organisations has shown that the water companies are using these CSOs alarmingly frequently. The Guardian found that water companies discharged raw sewage into the UK’s rivers 200,000 times in 2019. Surfers Against Sewage’s “2020 Water Quality” report shows that there were 2,523 coastal CSO discharges recorded in England and 387 coastal discharges in Wales between October 2019 and September 2020.

Research undertaken by the World Wildlife Fund in 2017 shows that 8% to 14% of overflows are spilling sewage into rivers at least once a week, and between a third and a half at least once a month. Continued population growth and more extreme events caused by climate change will only increase the pressure on existing infrastructure.

Research undertaken by the Rivers Trust in my constituency mapped the locations where combined sewer overflows, operated by Northumbrian Water, have discharged into water courses in the constituency or in upstream catchment areas, which flow into the rivers Tyne and Derwent. The Rivers Trust research shows that in 2018 there were 109 storm overflows, with 1,383 spills. The duration of spill hours was 3,219, with the worst performing site for spill duration being Hamsterley Mill pumping station’s Riverview CSO, discharging 56 spills over 539 hours into the Derwent.

That is sewage flowing into our rivers, reducing our water quality and ability to safely enjoy our inland waterways. An increasing number of people across the UK, and in my constituency in particular, are using our waterways for recreational purposes, whether that be swimming, kayaking or canoeing. That they should be partaking in activities in water of low quality is a major public and ecological health concern. The larger the amount of discharge, the larger the likelihood of contracting viruses or harmful illnesses, and the presence of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

It is not right or acceptable. We need to find new and effective ways to stop CSOs and discharges into rivers. We must also find better ways of improving our sewerage infrastructure, so that sewage cannot back up into homes when we have extreme rainfall events. That is why I welcome the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, a private Member’s Bill tabled by the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), which is due for its Second Reading on 22 January, although I fear it may be lost, following our deferred vote later today. That is why I am especially pleased that I am able to speak about it now.

The Bill would place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is no longer discharged into England’s inland waters. It would require water companies to set out plans to progressively reduce their reliance on combined sewer overflows. It would also ensure increased transparency, as firms would be mandated to report publicly on the number, condition and quality of the sewage discharged from CSOs and any other sewage catchment assets.

In addition, the proposed new law would require the Government to investigate further steps that can be taken by stakeholders, such as the Environment Agency, to improve water quality. That could include designating at least two inland bathing waters every year to drive forward standards and set legally binding targets to increase the number of bathing waters classified as good or excellent.

Until we have such a law, it is right for each one of us to work with our local water companies and other stakeholders to press for improvements locally. I am pleased to say that, on receiving the information from Surfers Against Sewage last year, I contacted the chief executive of Northumbrian Water, Heidi Mottram, to raise my concerns about discharges affecting the rivers in my constituency. At the end of last year, I met with officers of Northumbrian Water and Ceri Gibson, chief executive of the Tyne Rivers Trust, to discuss the current position locally and to look at how they could reduce the number of discharges.

Northumbrian Water is already working to reduce these incidents, and I was very glad to hear of further plans to work towards zero discharges. I thank Northumbrian Water for its positive approach to our discussions and the commitment to work further on reducing discharges, and I will continue to follow up on this issue. I know that my constituents who take a keen interest in environmental issues will also be looking out for further progress. I thank Ceri Gibson, chief executive of Tyne Rivers Trust, for her help and look forward to working with her, and the trust, in the future.

At this stage, I want to mention Northumbrian Water’s “Bin the wipe” campaign, because what we put down the loo makes a difference to our sewerage system and to what is discharged into our rivers and seas. Too many wet wipes and other items are claimed to be flushable, but while they may flush away from our loos, they are not biodegradable. They create huge problems in the sewerage system, contribute to the growth of fatbergs and cause problems down the line. These days, we are probably all using many kinds of wipes to sanitise our work places and stations, so it is important that we get the “Bin the wipe” message over. I invite the Minister to join me. It is part of the broader issue of CSOs too.

The Environment Agency has an important part to play in dealing with CSOs, of course. Many of these incidents are permitted. The Environment Agency has a responsibility to follow up on incidents and to take action to reduce and eliminate CSOs, permitted or not. That is why it was worrying to read about Environment Agency funding concerns in The Times on 28 December.

“The state of the environment in England is getting worse and waste criminals are taking advantage of a lack of enforcement to dump pollutants, the Environment Agency has admitted in a letter to the environment secretary. Emma Howard Boyd, the agency’s chairwoman, wrote to George Eustice in August saying that more people and businesses were failing to be prevented from breaking the law and that serious pollution incidents had risen. She said the agency’s ‘capacity to visit and tackle polluting businesses is now significantly reduced’ and that it ‘now has only the resources to attend the most serious environmental incidents’. Key indicators of environmental health are flatlining or deteriorating, with serious incidents up 27 per cent between 2017 and 2018, she said. The letter, obtained under freedom of information laws, also said that ‘water company performance, which had been improving for most of the last decade, has now gone into reverse, with more pollution incidents last year than in previous years, for which we and the government are being increasingly heavily criticised’.”

What are the Government doing to ensure that the Environment Agency is properly funded to play its part in reducing CSOs and to carry out the rest of its hugely important work?

I was also concerned to read in The Independent last year of a speech made by the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, who in August called for less rigorous measures to determine water quality in England’s rivers, lakes and beaches after Brexit, which he said would allow the Government to classify more water bodies as high standard. Where are the Government in all of this? We need to hold water companies to account. We are in a climate and ecological emergency and our biodiversity is in a dire situation. With COP26 coming up, we need bold leadership and action, not to crawl back on standards.

Here are my asks of the Minister. First, end sewage discharges into rivers. It is high time we put an end to this practice and improve the water quality of our rivers. Will she require all water companies to take real action to resolve this issue? Secondly, increase funding to the Environment Agency to properly monitor, investigate and take enforcement action on any incidents. Thirdly, commit to not watering down environmental regulations —we need to up our ambitions for improving our environment, not lower standards. Fourthly, we have to change the approach taken by the Government and regulators to future environmental challenges if we are to meet them. Fifthly, as Northumbrian Water says, we have to “Bin the wipe”. We must create enforceable standards, so that manufacturers cannot make misleading claims, and in the meantime make sure the public know that flushable does not mean biodegradable.

In this year of COP26, we should really be making an effort to improve water quality in our rivers and oceans. I hope the Government will rise to the challenge.

It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning, Dame Angela, albeit with a very small crowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing the debate on this important issue. She painted a fine picture of her constituency—the River Tyne, the wonderful wildlife and the value that they have for local people, especially at this time. People now realise how important our river landscapes can be for our health and wellbeing. I thank her for bringing this subject to us, because water quality is dear to my heart. As the Environment Minister, I am doing a great deal of work on it, particularly on issues relating to sewage discharges, as I will explain. I hope she will see that I am putting this subject under the microscope in various ways.

We have been given a lot of information about the damaging impacts of uncontrolled sewage discharges into local rivers and streams. River health and the impact of sewer overflows is an absolute priority for me as the Environment Minister, and I am absolutely determined to take action on it. In my view, it has been overlooked for far too long, and it needs to rise right up the agenda. The debate gives me a great opportunity to talk about some of the related issues.

It is clear from what the hon. Member says that this issue is really important to local people, too—not just Surfers Against Sewage, which has gathered some really valuable data, including about the coast of the west country, where I come from. It has been working on this problem for years and should be commended for its work.

I will first describe some of the challenges that we face in resolving the problem of excessive sewage discharges. Without adequate treatment, wastewater discharges into our rivers can have serious impacts on the natural environment can cause long-lasting damage to the ecosystem. There is even a potential risk to human health—the hon. Member mentioned the water-borne bacteria and viruses—so effective treatment of wastewater at wastewater treatment works is vital.

Before wastewater reaches the treatment works, there are storm overflows within the sewerage system, which the hon. Member mentioned. Storm overflows were a design feature of Victorian sewers—they date back a very long way. They are still being used, and they remain an integral part of our infrastructure today. Many of our sewer systems are combined systems, wherein sewage is combined with rainwater, and following heavy and prolonged rain the capacity of those systems can be exceeded. When that happens, the storm overflows act as a relief valve to discharge excessive sewage, combined with rainwater, into our rivers and the sea. The idea is to protect properties from flooding and prevent the unpleasant backing up of sewage in the system into our streets and homes during heavy storms. Reliance is increasing on the storm overflows, however, largely due to escalating population growth and the consequent urban development, together with more frequent storms due to climate change and more frequent sudden weather events. All that is putting more pressure on our sewerage system and increasing the use of storm overflows.

Eliminating the harm from overflows will be challenging. It would involve disruption and high costs, which would impact on customers’ bills, but recognising the scale of the challenge is the first step towards addressing it. That is what the hon. Member has highlighted today, and that is what I am working on. We are fully committed to bringing at least three quarters of our waters closer to their natural state as soon as is practicable. That is why over £30 billion has been invested by the water industry since 1990 to protect the environment, covering improvements in sewage treatment and sewage overflows. As a result, we have seen improvements in our water quality over the years, as the hon. Member recognises. I am pleased to say that we have already achieved a 67% reduction in the amount of phosphorous in our rivers, and a 79% reduction in the amount of ammonia discharge from sewage treatment works since 1995.

Around 98% of our urban areas are now in compliance with the waste water treatment regulations’ standards, and in 2019, around 98% of our bathing waters met at least the minimum standard of the bathing water directive. Of those, 71% were classified as excellent, which is the highest water quality standard. Ofwat has also allocated £4.6 billion to water companies for the 2020-25 period to improve the water environment, and water companies plan to spend this money. Already, many have jointly committed £1.1 billion specifically to tackle storm overflows. That means that in every single water company region in England, investment is being made to address the problem we are discussing.

We are also making progress on understanding the scale of the problem. Water companies have installed event duration monitoring technology on the majority of storm overflows to improve our understanding of when storm overflows discharge sewage, and to trigger investigations and improvements when overflows operate too frequently. Increasingly, as the hon. Lady said, members of the public want to know more about their local environment and the pressures on it. We need to do more to make this information on storm overflows available to people in a consistent and user-friendly way. Indeed, I have received a great amount of correspondence regarding issues with storm overflows from people all around the country and MPs on every side of the House. However, we need the right data on that: water companies are already collecting lots of information and making it available, but I would like to see more progress in this area.

I have outlined a lot of the positives, but despite the improvements that have been put in place, I know that if we do not take further action reliance on storm overflows will increase, as will the number of sewage discharges from storm overflows across the country. We need to plan carefully, while also making sure that every step provides good value for money and leads to better outcomes—outcomes that mean more people enjoying our lakes and rivers, the sea, and the beautiful coast that the hon. Lady described. That is why, through the Government’s Environment Bill, I am placing a statutory obligation on sewerage companies to make drainage and sewerage management plans. A key objective of these plans is to ensure better management of sewage discharges into our waterways. Interestingly, water companies have had to have plans for their water—what comes out of taps—but not for sewage. Now, they will have to, and I think that is going to be really important in tackling this issue.

I recognise there is a strong desire to make even wider and faster progress. As such, last August, I set up the taskforce on storm overflows. consisting of Government regulators, water companies and environmental NGOs, in an attempt to bring together all the key stakeholders—the people who are affected by this issue and can influence this space. Our taskforce is developing clear proposals for achieving a transformation in sewage treatment and management for the benefit of us all. It will explore what actions could be taken, building on the findings of a research project, and will report back on what actions it believes ought to be taken. That will add a great deal more detail to what we want to do. I have also recently met with the CEOs of the water companies, basically to rattle their cage: to say we need more, and serious, action on tackling water quality, and that they must reduce the use of these overflows in extreme weather. In addition to that, the Environment Bill sets a legally binding duty on us to set targets, so we will be setting targets to do with water quality.

The hon. Lady touched on the private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for—

I was going to say Ledbury—almost the right part of the world. I have had an awful lot of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) about that Bill. Obviously, dates are changing now for Friday sittings and private Members’ Bills, but I and my officials are continuing to discuss it with him. Of course, he raises some very good issues.

On wet wipes, and the “Bin the wipe” message, the hon. Member for Blaydon raises a great subject. I am fully supportive of her. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working with the water industry and the wet wipe industry to improve labelling and consumer information, and even to come up with a “fine to flush” standard, so that if a manufacturer comes up with a wet wipe, to meet the standard of being okay to flush it has to be biodegradable and the manufacturer must prove that it does not do any damage to the environment. I fully support her on that, because we can do something about it.

The Environment Agency has a framework for all its monitoring. The hon. Lady is somewhat critical of the EA, but it has a legal framework for enforcing environmental legislation and working with the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Obviously, I will continue to hold their feet to the fire as the Minister, because we rely on their reporting back.

I wish to be clear that I am not trying to be critical of the Environment Agency. I have a lot of dealings with it in my constituency and have found it very helpful and keen, but it needs funding to be able to do what it does.

Yes, of course it does, and the EA is funded. There is a framework through which it operates, but of course if we can stop the storm overflows being used so much and we can work with the farming community to reduce the pollutants that they release into the water space, all of those things will help to reduce overall pollution.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for introducing this debate on sewage discharges and the impact on water quality. I hope that I have conveyed to her that it is a subject that I am taking extremely seriously and working on. Measures are being put in place. I urge her to keep up her work, too, because the more of us who work on it the more success we will have.

Before the Minister concludes, will she comment on the issue of funding and maintaining environmental standards?

Of course environmental standards are crucial, as is the monitoring that goes into informing us about what is happening in the water space. We have left Europe now, as she knows, but that does not mean that we will in any way reduce our environmental standards—indeed, I believe that we can strengthen them. We can have much more bespoke systems for the whole environmental space.

I hope that the Government have demonstrated, even in the past couple of months, how much we are putting the environment at the top of the agenda. Even in this very difficult time for us all, we have committed to protecting 30% of our land space and 30% of our waters. A raft of measures and our green recovery challenge fund demonstrate that the Government are putting the environment and all that that encompasses right at the top of the agenda. I thank the hon. Lady again for raising the subject.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.