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Coastal Businesses: Sewage

Volume 722: debated on Thursday 17 November 2022

6. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential impact of sewage spillages on coastal businesses. (902208)

I am still bobbing; I feel as if I am back on the Back Benches.

We are the first Government to tackle storm overflows through the storm overflows reduction plan. We recognise the importance of bathing waters to the economy of coastal areas, with each visit adding approximately £12 to the local economy. Our strict new targets will see £56 billion-worth of capital investment over 25 years and we will eliminate ecological harm from storm sewage discharge by 2050. Our impact assessment on the storm overflows reduction plans provides evidence of the benefits to businesses and society of cleaning up the water.

People in coastal communities have seen for themselves the increasing sewage on beaches during 12 years of Conservative Government. Business owners have faced the consequences, with tourists less likely to visit. Will the Minister admit that cutting the Environment Agency budget was a mistake, and perhaps apologise to Environment Agency staff for those cuts and for making it harder for them to do their jobs? While she is apologising, will she also apologise to coastal communities for the damage done and tell us what the plan is to stop sewage discharges on our beaches?

I take issue with that question. Our bathing waters in England are a massive success story, with almost 95% achieving good or excellent status last year, the highest since the stringent new standards were introduced in 2015. I accept that there are issues, and the hon. Gentleman will know how hard we are working—harder than any Government ever before—to tackle storm sewage discharges, hence our reduction plan and all the targets we are setting the water companies. We will do it.

The Minister will be aware that two or three weeks ago there was a well-publicised spillage at the beach at St Agnes in Cornwall, where a large volume of brown material was expelled into the river. Many campaigners immediately leapt to the assumption that it was a sewage discharge and became very voluble about how disgraceful it was. Had it been sewage, it would have been disgraceful, but it was in fact soil erosion. That is in itself another problem, but we need to urge moderate language when we manage these issues. People should not immediately leap to a conclusion, but allow the Environment Agency and the water company to be clear about what has caused the incident.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that particular issue. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, assuming that it was sewage, and it was proven not to be. That is why monitoring is so important and why this Government have set in place a comprehensive monitoring and data-gathering programme and project. We need that to sort out those issues, as well as all the other measures we have put in place.