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South West Water

Volume 746: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the performance of South West Water.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Henderson. I am delighted to have secured this important debate, one year on from another debate that I secured on the performance of South West Water. It is another opportunity to hold South West Water to the highest possible standards in the House.

Last year, I described the performance of our water company and its historic lack of investment as “shameful”, and many of my constituents shared my point of view. This year, I want to focus my speech on the facts facing my constituency of East Devon. The public want to see evidence of improvement and delivery of the promised investment, and they want South West Water to clean up its act and our water. South West Water must deliver better services for our constituents, improve our bathing waters, and protect our natural environment. Not doing so puts the vibrancy of our coastal communities under threat.

As the MP for East Devon, I am determined to push South West Water to deliver the standards expected by local residents, visitors and businesses. I want the unacceptable pollution we have seen in Exmouth, Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton to be met with the full force of the law. Thanks to this Conservative Government, we finally have the tools to hold South West Water to account. It is the biggest crackdown on sewage spills in history: the Government have introduced unlimited fines, accelerated investment plans, legal targets to reduce discharges from every single storm overflow and eliminate all ecological harm, as well as compulsory storm overflow monitors, and they have forced live spill data to be made public. I voted for all that. The Government have passed a suite of new laws to crack down on spills, including the Environment Act 2021, the Environmental Targets (Water) (England) Regulations 2022, the Environmental Civil Sanctions (England) (Amendment) Order 2023, and the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2023.

Those new laws, brought in by this Conservative Government—and no previous Government—are forcing the hand of water companies, but new laws on their own will not clean up our water: more investment, better data, and tougher enforcement are clearly needed. On investment, we know that South West Water has historically failed to invest; we pay the highest sewerage bills in the country, and we have not had our fair return for decades. On data, we now know the scale of the problem, because this Government lifted the lid on the water companies’ infrastructure and made them pay to monitor the results of their own failures.

On enforcement, the Environment Agency must be appropriately funded to carry out its enforcement work. In order to crack down on water pollution, this Government have boosted funding for the Environment Agency, with a budget of £2.2 million per year specifically for water company enforcement activity. That means more officers focused on regulation, more compliance checks, and more data specialists. Environment Agency workforce numbers are higher than a decade ago—there are now 13,200 staff, and it is growing at its base in Exeter. In the past two years, staff numbers have grown by 2,300 across the Environment Agency.

So are things moving in the right direction? Well, the Environment Agency has said:

“There is still much work to be done.”

Its latest annual rating for South West Water is now two stars. That rating is for 2022; in 2021, it was a one-star water company. The Environment Agency has said that the two-star rating is evidence of “modest improvements”, but it has also said that pollution is still at “unacceptable” levels. I agree: only last year, South West Water was fined £2.1 million after admitting that it caused pollution across Devon and Cornwall dating back to 2016. The year before last, it was hit by £13 million in fines in the form of bill deductions for customers. Since those fines were handed out, the Government have legislated to introduce unlimited financial penalties on water companies and expand the range of offences for which penalties can be applied.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. It is interesting to note that a £2.1 million fine was levied against South West Water, but does he think that fine is going to make any difference to a company that has a debt in its water business of £2.8 billion?

I think every little helps. When we look at the scale of fines and potential future fines from ongoing investigations, which I will come to, I think we will see more money levied in that way from South West Water. Money raised by fines will then be channelled back into improving water quality, supporting local groups and community-led schemes, which help to protect our waterways.

The bosses of water firms that commit criminal acts of water pollution will be banned from receiving bonuses. I am pleased that the chief executive of South West Water led by example in not accepting a bonus last year. Meanwhile, the industry regulator, Ofwat, is currently investigating South West Water’s wastewater treatment works and leakage reporting. I and many colleagues look forward to seeing the outcome of those investigations. The need for independent regulators—Ofwat and the Environment Agency—to act decisively in these investigations is crucial.

Unfortunately, I have to report that the start of 2024 was particularly poor for South West Water in my constituency. Exmouth has faced several major incidents resulting from failures in South West Water’s infrastructure and the lack of investment in the town. South West Water has been using tankers to take sewage from burst sewer pipes to pumping stations, causing additional spills due to the disposal of additional tankered sewage. Those incidents are currently under investigation by the Environment Agency. The situation was—and is— completely unacceptable.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Incidents such as the one he has just described have been happening in Kingsbridge in my constituency, where there have been significant floods and raw sewage has been coming out of the network. The problem is that the investigations are not quick enough, nor are the actions to resolve them, and the damage done to residents and businesses is not well enough understood by South West Water, which needs to engage at a far quicker rate. Does he agree?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. The extra resources being pumped into the Environment Agency in our region will no doubt be helpful. Coming back to Exmouth, unfortunately some of the ground team, both contractors and people who work for South West Water, who were trying to fix this mess faced harassment and abuse during the weeks of disruption. Historical underinvestment and poor management by South West Water executives are not the fault of workers on the ground, who are out day in, day out in all weathers. I thank everyone who worked so hard to fix those failures, come rain or shine.

As investigations continue into this extremely sorry state of affairs, I continue to work with the Environment Agency, Ofwat and the water Minister. Every option must be on the table in response, including hefty fines. The recent debacle in Exmouth has once again demonstrated the dire need for fast-tracked investment into Exmouth’s water infrastructure, fully funded by South West Water. I have asked Ofwat to include Exmouth’s recent pollution incidents as part of its ongoing investigation into sewage treatment works, and I am pleased that that is happening.

I visited the Exmouth burst pipe alongside the Environment Agency, and I challenged South West Water on the timescale for a permanent solution. I repeated my calls for it to speed up its plans for £38 million of investment in Exmouth. That work includes upgrades to reduce spill frequency at Phear Park and Maer Road pumping stations, and upgrading the sewage treatment works outlet through Sandy Bay holiday park.

That is apparently due to be completed by March 2025, but let me be exceptionally clear: I remain to be convinced that plans to manage spills by moving them across town from one part of the network to the other, or by building pipes further out to sea, will deliver the result that the people of Exmouth dearly deserve. Nor will I or anyone else be grateful for a partial fix. I would add that we still do not know the precise location of an important sewer overflow in Exmouth. After so many months, South West Water still has not determined where the Maer Road combined sewer overflow spills off Exmouth beach. That is unacceptable.

I apologise for intervening twice, but my hon. Friend has just made an essential point about the impact that water companies are having on our aquaculture businesses. Some of them are based out of Brixham, but some out in Lyme Bay, off his constituency, and they are severely jeopardised by the network that South West Water operates and by its lack of ability to treat the sewage. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to ensure that South West Water takes into account the businesses that will be affected by those networks?

I agree 100% with my hon. Friend, who makes a powerful point about the impact of this unacceptable performance on businesses. We need to know the location of the end of the pipe off Exmouth beach, not only because of a potential breach of the Environment Agency’s permit conditions, but for the safety of bathing water users. I remain on the case with South West Water. The saga has gone on for far too long. Both the Environment Agency and I agree that investment to reduce sewage spills in Exmouth is well overdue and I will not relent in my calls for more investment from South West Water in Exmouth and across all parts of East Devon.

Near to Exmouth is the gorgeous town of Budleigh Salterton, at the mouth of the River Otter, with a new national nature reserve that I was privileged to visit a couple of weeks ago. A couple of hours ago I learned that the sewer pipe in Budleigh Salterton burst last night. South West Water were using tankers to transport flows from Budleigh to Maer Lane sewage treatment works. I understand from South West Water, with whom I remain in touch about this recent incident and its impact on the local environment and disruption to local residents, that the repair is now complete. I have already received several emails on the matter. I have asked South West Water for more details on its longer-term plans for Budleigh Salterton and what its investment will mean in terms of spills.

Following my debate in Parliament last year, South West Water announced a new multimillion package to upgrade Sidmouth and Tipton St John’s sewer system and to reduce the number of spills. I have been calling on South West Water to speed up that already announced investment, and I reiterate that call today—I know the company will hear me. We have seen far too many reports of spills off Sidmouth beach in the last few weeks. If it is possible to go further and faster, while balancing the cost to customers, South West Water must not hesitate to do so.

If South West Water believes its sewage systems cannot cope with new housing developments, it must say so. The Government are looking to consult on whether to make water companies statutory consultees on major planning applications. I wholeheartedly support such a move, and I urge the Minister to press ahead with that as quickly as possible.

I firmly believe that applications for new planning developments should only go ahead if it is clear that local water infrastructure can cope. I also urge the Minister to get water companies to install monitors on all emergency overflows. There cannot be any excuses for pollution. I understand that the Government want to do that, and I would be grateful to hear the timescale for when that could happen.

For my part of Devon, South West Water must make its water infrastructure fit for the future. When the new town of Cranbrook, which I am proud to represent, was being built, South West Water opted to upgrade an existing sewage treatment works in Exeter rather than build a new plant. If further development east of Exeter is to go ahead, I strongly urge South West Water to draw up plans for a new plant, with urgency.

Councillors on East Devon District Council very much jumped the gun to sign off a further new town of 8,000 homes in our district—just weeks before the new national planning policy framework was announced, which provides the tools to challenge such housing targets, especially in these circumstances. That was spectacularly short-sighted and risks further challenges for the district’s water infrastructure.

I will not use much more time; I am conscious that other colleagues would like to speak. Outside Parliament, I have been working with East Devon parish, town, district and county councillors—this must be a cross-party endeavour—and with environmental groups. I have raised their concerns with South West Water’s bosses, the Environment Agency and Ofwat. We all want to hold South West Water to account for its plans to invest in East Devon and to fix local problems urgently, as and when they crop up—and they do crop up all too frequently.

I have previously secured compensation for residents of Clyst St Mary after foul flooding in the village and I recently helped local charity Sidmouth Hospice at Home to reach a resolution over a hefty bill from South West Water. I have also facilitated meetings between Sidmouth town and Lympstone parish councils and senior figures in South West Water to look at data and delve into the issues in granular detail.

South West Water has held community meetings in Exmouth and Sidmouth recently and I publicly urge the company to continue to talk regularly with the communities that pay for its services. I also urge South West Water to publish its post-2025 investment plans online as soon as they are finalised. After all, it is we the public who are the billpayers. We have the right to know what is going on.

We all want to protect our stunning coastline, rivers and streams and hold South West Water to account for its failings. We finally have the tools to do so, through targets, fines, monitoring, data and investment plans. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the performance of South West Water and I very much look forward to hearing the contributions of other colleagues and the Minister this afternoon.

I was about to remind hon. Members to bob if they want to speak, but it looks as though I do not have to. I gently urge Members to restrict their comments to about five minutes. I call Luke Pollard.

Thank you, Mr Henderson. It is good to follow my fellow Janner, the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp), who brought forward this debate. The performance of South West Water is not good enough: that is felt by the constituents both he and I represent. We need renewed cross-party pressure on the company to invest in the services required to cut sewage spills and to return reliable water usage all year round, as well as to address the concerns about drought in our area.

Raw sewage is the perfect metaphor for the last 14 years. For years, South West Water dished out huge dividends to its shareholders while dumping sewage into our rivers and seas. Our region deserves so much better than that. The most recent data from the Environment Agency has not been published for 2023, but the 2022 figures show there were more than 37,000 sewage spills in the south-west. In Plymouth alone, there were more than 2,000—an average of five spills every day, or 12,750 hours of sewage dumping.

According to South West Water’s live, interactive storm overflow map, as of half-past 3 today there are 26 bathing water locations across Devon and Cornwall that may be affected by the operation of overflows, including two in Plymouth. Having more data is a necessary part of being able to respond to the challenges of a lack of investment in infrastructure over a long time. However, that data must lead to enforcement and to a change in investment behaviour by South West Water in order to start shutting down those storm overflows for routine discharge.

All of us in this House recognise that, in the event of extreme weather, our water system cannot hold that much water—but we are not talking about extreme weather on a day-to-day basis; discharge is a routine daily occurrence from a water company that knows it should not be doing it, but is still doing it. I would like the water company to be more honest with customers and parliamentarians about what needs to be done to get to a point where all those storm overflows do not routinely discharge on a daily basis.

The hon. Member talked about how data on sewage spills is gathered. Does he agree that, rather than water companies having complete control over gathering data on sewage spills, that function ought to sit with the regulator, the Environment Agency?

I am not a huge fan of the Environment Agency—I like the people who work there, but there are just not enough of them. Certainly, since 2010, Environment Agency funding has been cut by over 50%, which creates real challenges in the efficiency of prosecutions. Prosecutions that take years do not represent justice delivered quickly, or fines going to the affected communities quickly; they represent justice delayed, and something that can be built into the company’s daily business operations.

I will pick up on a final point before I finish: the investment that South West Water is making at Devil’s Point in Plymouth. As a regular wild swimmer there—I swim all year round, in shorts or wetsuits, depending on the time of year—I am grateful that the Minister and his predecessor authorised the campaign I was running for a new bathing water status at Devil’s Point and Firestone Bay. That is very welcome. The data collection there shows excellent water quality nearly all year round, but the two private raw sewage outlets that pump untreated human effluent into that important part of Plymouth Sound are not acceptable. I am grateful to South West Water for starting the work on closing those and adopting those raw sewers, but that work is taking too long and I would like to see a greater urgency in delivering it. We know raw sewage is going into our sea, and the action taken there should be quicker.

I encourage the Minister to keep pressure on South West Water, because as a water company it is not investing enough in the infrastructure we need. I have long-term concerns about the amount of water in our system to prevent future droughts and water restrictions in the summer. I would be grateful if the Minister could keep that pressure on South West Water, so that the region gets the water and sewage services that we deserve.

I will focus my remarks on water supply rather than pollution. To give some context, the Environment Agency predicts that England risks running short of water by 2045—not very far away—due to climate change and population growth. The Government are struggling to get our daily usage down to 122 litres per person by 2050—currently that figure is 145 litres. We have built no new reservoirs since 1991, and we know that the Environment Agency is going to reduce river abstractions.

In 2022 we had one of the hottest summers on record, and yes, we did almost run out of water. What happened in the south-west? Reservoirs were at a record low—Roadford lake was 30% below its usual water level—and, much to everyone’s consternation, hosepipe bans were implemented for over a year, from August 2022 to September 2023. The Environment Agency was not impressed; as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, a leaked email from the Environment Agency said that South West Water

“were not honest, open and transparent with regulators about their drought projections”

and that there was

“a lack of understanding of their own supply system”.

Basically, it was not prepared.

What did South West Water do? To its credit, it did start putting measures in place. It introduced the option of water audits and made a number of water-saving products available—although not everyone can use them and they run out very quickly. Its “stop the drop” and “save every drop” campaigns were well regarded—indeed other water companies have followed suit—but they did not deliver the savings expected. The target was a 5% reduction in consumption, but the campaigns achieved only a 3% reduction. The company also introduced a non-household innovation fund.

So far, so good, but as we head forward, climate change is not going to improve much; it is going to make things worse. Looking forward to the water plan for 2024, there is an assumption that there will be a sixteenfold increase in heatwaves by 2030 and we will have 15 megalitres less water available per day by 2050. Yet the population of Devon will have increased by 350,000 by 2050, with many working from home, increasing demand, and we know that abstraction licences will continue to decrease, so we will need extra 30 million litres of water per day net for that plan period.

I have a real concern that the supply and demand calculations made by South West Water are unrealistic. There is a huge overreliance on smart meters to deliver the goods, and indeed on every one of us using less water. South West Water was rated as red on the supply demand balance index for 2022-23 because two of the four water zones were in deficit. By 2050 we will need 200 million litres of water per day. It is not realistic. We already know that the figures from South West Water are questionable, and work is going on with Ofwat looking at the leakage and consumption data.

Smart meters have proved a bit of a challenge in the electricity industry, and I see no hope that they can be better for water, not least because they are going to be under paving stones. The apps—it is not clear what sort of device South West Water will use—do not work very well. If the electric market is anything to go by, if one’s property is too far away from where the core meter is, the app simply does not work. I put in a smart meter, but I still have to give my readings every six months.

To top it all, if we do not have proper guidance for individuals and they do not know how much water they are using in a bath, or shower or washing machine, and if we do not have manufacturers putting grading systems for water usage on their machines, we are never going to change behaviour to meet the need that is clearly there. Water companies are bearing the brunt of trying to convey this message, and the Government need to do some more heavy lifting here. It feels like the measures are being done to consumers, not with and for consumers.

I am pleased that there is going to be a consumer-focused condition introduced into water company licences, but when? The Government said 2024; will the Minister confirm whether that will be the case? That measure will mean that we, as customers, should be well informed and feel that we can rely on South West Water to fix problems. This weekend, my residents in Ashcombe were very concerned because a pumping station that supplies their water, and that has been off-on with different problems since 2017, failed again. This is 2024, seven years since 2017—the consumer duty cannot come soon enough.

The water supply is just as important as pollution, and we need to focus on it. We cannot rely on reduced demand assumptions. We need more infrastructure—we cannot just sit on our laurels—and it needs to be innovative. We need to look at desalination as, to its credit, South West Water is beginning to do, but that is only the start of a very big mountain that still needs to be climbed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Henderson. A policy paper says:

“the costs of cleaning up coastal waters, a national resource, have not fallen fairly across the country. Thirty per cent of the cost has fallen on Devon and Cornwall, which have just 3 per cent of the nation’s population. The chair of the South West Water Consumers Committee believes their average bill will go up by a further £150 a year”.

That was written in 1996. It is a Liberal Democrat policy paper from almost 30 years ago, and it is a story that continues to chime today and echoes through the decades. It is good that we are talking about the performance of a single water company, and South West Water is plainly one of the worst performing water companies in the country, but we should not focus myopically on the performance of one single water company and miss the big picture: the regulatory environment in which all water companies work. That is what I shall address my remarks to.

It is true that South West Water pays out some staggering dividend payments. Since 1990, South West Water has paid out in dividends an amount equivalent to £2,931 per property. That is more than any of the other 13 English water companies. A constituent of mine from Seaton recently pointed out to me that South West Water, or its parent company Pennon Group, owes £3.1 billion, which is similar to the amount paid in dividends since 1990, which is £3.2 billion. By those measures, South West Water is a poorly performing water company, but we have to look at the environment in which it is working. The water companies are working to the incentives that their shareholders set for them, rather than for the public benefit and good.

There were 146 recorded dry spills over a 12-month period last year. To recap, those are illegal spills made by water companies when there is no heavy rainfall. Just yesterday evening, I was talking to Jo Bateman from the East Devon constituency, who attended the End Sewage Pollution coalition meeting that I brought together. She explained to me that she is suing South West Water for those illegal dry spills. I am not at all persuaded that water companies will simply do the right thing without Government intervention. We know the Environment Agency has been denuded of resources in recent years. The agency had £235 million cut from its budget when the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) was the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Obviously, the hon. Member was in the room for my speech, and I explained that more investment is going into the Environment Agency to tackle the issues he raises. Would he shed some light on Lib Dem policy? Does his party still want to abolish the EA or keep it? It is not clear—it is a muddle and a farce.

Liberal Democrat policy is to abolish Ofwat but very much to bolster the Environment Agency. We need to ensure that we have a regulator with teeth. As I have said to the hon. Member before, if the Environment Agency has teeth, they are in a glass of water by the side of the bed. He says he thinks that South West Water will hear his concerns, but I point out that the chief executive only forwent her bonus when it was plain that the level of outrage and campaigning in the west country was such that anything else would have been unacceptable. I should say that it is under pressure from parties like the Liberal Democrats that the Conservatives seem to have been talking in recent weeks about water companies and their executives not taking their bonuses when their performance is so poor.

In clarifying Liberal Democrat policy and the actions they have taken, perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain what his party’s leader, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), did to tackle this issue when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change between 2012 and 2015.

I would be very happy to. Of course, at that time the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change had different responsibilities.

Our policy now is very much about reforming water companies’ boards. They need to be transformed into public benefit companies. We need boards to have grassroots campaigners such as those I gathered together last night. We had Surfers Against Sewage and the Women’s Institute, which is pushing its “Water You Waiting For?” campaign. Fantastic campaigners such as these need a voice at the board level of these companies, otherwise we will face the catastrophe of our tourist hotspots being struck with the affliction that is water pollution. According to Blue Flag, four of the 10 beaches most affected by pollution last year were in Devon, including Sidmouth, which endured over 600 hours of sewage spills.

We heard earlier in the debate about the Environment Agency. In my view, we need to see the end of operator self-monitoring, which is where water companies get to gather their data themselves before passing it to the regulator. It means that they can potentially vary the data they are collecting. Water companies are essentially marking their own homework. This is having a devastating effect on some tourist areas such as the ones in Honiton.

I feel that there is a mismatch between the rhetoric we have heard this afternoon from some hon. Members and their voting records. I point them to 25 January 2023, when we voted on the draft Environmental Targets (Water) (England) Regulations 2022 and when I was very proud to insist that the Government should have more stringent targets for water pollution. I can see, Mr Henderson, that you are suggesting I have reached the end of my time, but I am grateful to have had the chance to make my remarks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) for securing today’s important debate.

I must declare an interest: I surf. I surfed on Sunday on a beach that South West Water’s website advised it was safe to surf on and had been for 24 hours. However, a well-known campaign group assured me that it had a sewage alert on it. This happens week after week. A campaign group has chosen to misrepresent the data it has, issuing sewage alerts when the combined storm overflows run and scaring people from entering our beautiful waters. Yes, we would all like the combined storm overflows to not run so often, but they are over 95% rainwater, and on most of North Devon’s stunning surf beaches they rush out into the Atlantic ocean. It does not take 48 hours for the tide to sort that out. The recommended gold standard for removing overflow waters is one tidal rotation, which is 12.5 hours.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank South West Water for the work it has done to date, which saw Croyde, one of the jewels of the surf crown, move from having “good” to “excellent” bathing water quality last year. I also thank the company for working with the event organisers—the ones who accepted—over the Christmas period to try to get our big Christmas swims out safely. Huge confusion is being caused on our beaches, with a Victorian bathing water season still in place, meaning that the most accurate data from the Environment Agency is not available from September through to May. We are a hardy bunch in North Devon. We are out all year round.

With that in mind, I want to focus on the serious problem that occurred in North Devon just three weeks ago, when there was a raw sewage spill from a sewage treatment works due to an electrical fault caused by a contractor on site. This resulted in six hours of raw sewage running into a large river that runs straight out to sea. Yes, there are questions for South West Water about the incident, but accidents do happen. South West Water reported it in line with all procedures.

The Environment Agency recommended closing four beaches and posted details of the sewage incident on its website. Unfortunately, it informed only one of the two councils that needed to be notified. No one told people on the beaches. The well-known campaign group, which we would think would rush to issue a sewage alert, did nothing of the sort. Its “sewage alert” has no definition; it literally means that the storm overflow had gone at some point in the previous 48 hours. The group chooses not to use the information that is available to it from the Environment Agency, which details when there is a real sewage pollution issue. In that respect, I have an issue with the South West Water website as well, which only includes data on its own storm overflows. However, it is at least clear that that is what the company is doing.

Most people do not use the Environment Agency website, which is not a fancy app that says when there is a problem. On that day, although we now know that sewage was being released, the campaign group that apparently prides itself on supporting surfers did not use the data available to it and surfing lessons went ahead.

Many people who regularly use the beaches in North Devon gave up on the campaign app some time ago. One surf school said, “We’d never go surfing if we listened to them.” I ask the Minister this question: what more can be done urgently to provide accurate information to those wishing to bathe or surf at this time of year? I urge the campaign group to think a bit harder about the information it is spreading—

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but she has mentioned many times this “campaign group”. I assume she means Surfers Against Sewage, but can she be clear for the record whom she is being critical of?

I am happy to clarify, but by the same token the group does not actually like it when I mention it by name.

As I was saying, I urge the group to think a bit harder about the information it is spreading and at least try to issue a sewage alert when there actually is sewage. I say that because when the group set itself up 40 years ago, it ran a brilliant campaign and quite rightly so, as there was a lot of work to do. However, the group now privately states: “With regard to the beaches in your constituency, we totally agree that huge improvements have been made to water quality there and in many places around the country.” However, the group does not like me repeating that in public, as it undermines its very existence.

Yes, South West Water has more to do. I want to know how that incident at Ashford and two more incidents at Croyde over Christmas happened. Most of all, however, I want people to have easy access to accurate information about when it is safe to enter the water on some of the finest beaches in the world.

It is an absolute pleasure, Mr Henderson, to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) and fellow Janner on securing this debate.

It is worth recalling what our water quality was back in the mid-1980s. For decades, the south-west had some of the cheapest water bills in the country for one simple reason: we just used to dump our sewage straight into the sea, with no real investment to end that practice until that time. Those who try to pretend that public ownership innately means great standards of environmental practice need to think again.

There has been major investment since that time, but it is another initiative that began under the coalition Government that has brought the issue of water quality back into the headlines. In 2013, only 7% of storm overflow outlets received any monitoring; as of the end of last year, 100% of those outlets receive monitoring. Put simply, the issue—the use of storm overflow outlets—has always existed, but it was just ignored and not monitored.

Bathing water quality is vital for Torbay, especially given the popularity of water sports and sea swimming among both residents and tourists. I have done some considerable work on the issue of bathing water quality since being elected to the House. Achievements so far include the completion of a major project at Torre Abbey sands by South West Water to ensure that our bay met the tougher legal bathing water standards introduced since my election in 2015. Those standards remain in place today.

To provide some background information, the majority of beaches in Torbay have outstanding bathing water quality, with 11 of the 15 registered beaches in the English Riviera classified as excellent for water quality in 2023. However, with Goodrington’s bathing water quality rated as sufficient, there is a need for further work to get all our beaches to a rating of good, then excellent.

To push forward action in the bay, over the last year I have met the chief executive of South West Water at Meadfoot beach, which does not have a storm overflow outlet, despite some claims that it does, and I met the company’s chief operating officer at Goodrington beach to discuss water quality across the bay and the next steps to invest in it.

During my most recent meeting, South West Water recognised the popularity of bathing at Goodrington and the need to improve the rating of Goodrington’s water quality. I pushed it for a target for the water quality being rated excellent by 2030, and to be fair to the company it agreed to that target. We will therefore see a £6-million programme of investment by 2030 in infrastructure near Goodrington and Paignton sands to help to achieve that goal. That work alone will not improve the standard of the bathing water at that beach to excellent, given the issues with items washed into the sea from surrounding parks and facilities, but it will provide further improvement. One thing we sometimes miss in this debate is the fact that water quality can be as easily affected by what is washed in from a park, particularly animal waste, as by whatever discharge may be coming from an outlet. The plan for Goodrington and Paignton is part of a £27-million plan for investment in the bay between now and 2030, with the clear goal of all our beaches reaching the excellent standard.

The Tor Bay Harbour Authority needs to stop using the same term for both rainfall drainage predictions and actual sewage releases—an issue which the previous Lib Dem-independent coalition-run council and the current Conservative leadership have raised regularly with the Environment Agency. The aim is to create clarity for residents, ensure that investment is targeted at sewage and end any misleading presentations of data by third parties.

I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I ask that he cover some specific points. First, what work will be done to hold South West Water to the commitments it has made to invest in further improvements in water quality? Secondly, alongside the wider plans for our region, how will local communities be able to hold South West Water and other partners, such as local councils, to pledges such as the ones recently made relating to Goodrington and Paignton sands? Finally, what steps will he take with the Environment Agency to create greater clarity about what is rainwater draining from land and what is an actual sewage spill? The aim is to bring clarity for the public and focus for resource investment.

Progress has been made, but there is more to do. We need to keep a focus on the issue and ensure that our water company is held to account, so that the progress residents expect to see is delivered.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) on securing this debate. I have spent many summer holidays in his constituency over the years, so it was great to hear those names.

This issue is vital, so I welcome the opportunity to discuss the performance of South West Water in more detail. There are lessons for us to learn about the whole sector by examining this case, but many of the issues that have been raised are specific to the south-west. Although there are strong opinions on this issue, there were some very valuable contributions to what has been an excellent debate.

The first point made by the hon. Member for East Devon that is worth repeating is the fact that across the country, many people working for water companies have become the victims of harassment. They are not in any way responsible, and I echo his point about that. He welcomed, as others did, the recent increase in funding for the Environment Agency. However, the context is that the Environment Agency had a 50% cut from 2010 to 2022. If it is the case, as I believe it is, that more money for the Environment Agency will improve the quality of its monitoring, it must be accepted that the huge cuts it experienced in the first 12 years of this Government have been a contributory factor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) spoke about the need for more honesty from South West Water, which other Members repeated. He spoke powerfully about how important the issue is for his constituents. He also invited us to imagine him swimming in various amounts of Lycra, which many people will have enjoyed when thinking about his outdoor swimming. It is important that we reflect on the fact that swimming is key to both the enjoyment of people in the south-west and the economy down there.

The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) reflected on the lack of investment in infrastructure over many years. She also said, in what was a very good speech, that she believed that South West Water had not been honest. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) spoke about the specific challenges in the local area, particularly the fact that it is a popular tourist destination, with the population expanding hugely in the summer months. That has specific consequences, and is not necessarily reflected in who pays the bills. He also questioned where the responsibility for companies stood between shareholders and the general environmental good. Businesses have a statutory responsibility to respond to their shareholders, which is why it is down to Government to have responsibility for ensuring that they perform to environmental standards as well. That informs much of the approach that the Labour party takes.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) identified a failure of investment between 2012 and 2015. She placed responsibility at the feet of the Lib Dems, who were in government with the Tories at that time, but we would say that it has happened throughout the past 14 years. She also took the unusual step of suggesting that the major issue that people were angry about was the performance of the local campaign group, which I have to say is a new development that I was not expecting.

The recent report by the Rivers Trust, “State of Our Rivers”, which was published only last week, shows that the dial overall has not shifted on the health of our waterways. Not a single English river is in good overall health, and that has not changed since the previous report in 2021. A multitude of factors inform water health, but 54% of rich river stretches failed because of activities attributed to the water industry. That simply is not good enough.

Yesterday, along with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, I spoke at the launch of the election manifesto for the Surfers Against Sewage campaign. It was a shame that the Government were not able to send the Minister, although he was intending to go. It is an important coalition, because the issue is of huge importance to our constituents, particularly to the economy of the south-west. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton reflected, we heard from Jo Bateman about the powerful campaign that she is fighting for the ability to swim in clean waterways, recognised as an amenity that should be available to us all.

In preparing for this debate, I was pleased to hear about the work of Jayne Kirkham and Perran Moon, Labour’s parliamentary candidates for Truro and Falmouth and for Camborne and Redruth, respectively. They have supported protests and started petitions that add to the community fight to preserve Cornwall’s waterways. Jayne stressed that the discharges into Cornwall’s rivers was impacting on tourism and costing millions alongside the environmental damage.

Many people are concerned that Ofwat’s new growth duty will further reduce its ability to be a force for environmental good. When the Minister responds, I hope that he can set out how he sees that duty working alongside Ofwat’s responsibilities to improve environmental outcomes. Does the Minister agree that the perception that our waterways are not fit to swim in is damaging to growth as it depletes tourist revenue? If so, will he confirm whether he has instructed Ofwat that its new growth duty must mean that no sewage discharge is liable to reduce tourist growth?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) for bringing the matter of the performance of South West Water before the House, which has proven to be an incredibly important debate. I am disappointed in the continued poor performance shown by South West Water and its impact on our local environment.

Recently, I undertook a tour of the south-west and heard at first hand how pollution can impact coastal communities and local economies. I want it to be clear that this Government have made improving water company performance a top priority. While performance may have improved in the 2022-23 reporting year, South West Water remains one of the worst performing companies, with a long way to go still—in particular on pollution incidents and storm overflow discharges, both of which were significantly above the industry average in 2022. That is completely unacceptable. South West Water should be under no illusion: it must take urgent steps to reduce its pollution incidents significantly, as well as addressing other performance concerns, such as increasing resilience of the water supply.

Among the concerns expressed by Members, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon raised the issue of sewage discharge into Exmouth bathing water. I have recently had discussions with him about that, and he has written to me several times. Although the condition of the bathing water is currently classified as excellent by the Environment Agency, I wish to reassure the House that the recent incidents raised by my hon. Friend are currently being investigated by the Environment Agency. It has required South West Water to provide data and information to support its investigations. It would be inappropriate for me to comment from the Dispatch Box while this investigation is ongoing, but please rest assured that the regulator will not hesitate to hold the water company to account if a breach has occurred.

The Environment Agency is also scrutinising South West Water’s overall pollution reduction plan to ensure that the company has the right plans in place to prevent future issues. I will also be personally seeking assurance from the chief executive of South West Water, Susan Davy, that the company is doing all it can to mitigate the environmental impacts and protect bathing waters both in Exmouth and across the south-west for the sake of both the environment and public health.

I am also aware of the concerns of Members and the public following high-profile sewage spills, such as those at Harlyn bay in Cornwall. I am pleased to see that South West Water has outlined an £800,000 investment in this area by 2025 to reduce surface water ingress into the combined sewer network to help reduce storm overflow spill frequencies. However, its actions are again coming too late, following years of neglecting its civic duties. This Government will not be shy of holding the company to account.

Would the Minister agree that the problem is not just with one single water company but with the regulatory environment in which water companies operate? That is why at last night’s #EndSewagePollution coalition meeting, which I brought together, we had present the Rivers Trust, British Canoeing, the Angling Trust, River Action UK, Swim England, Surfers Against Sewage and the Women’s Institute. Does the Minister regret being unable to attend?

I find it a huge misfortune that it is Lib Dem policy to get rid of one of the key regulators, Ofwat, as has been confirmed in this debate. We have just given Ofwat powers to take a much more robust approach to dividends and water company bosses’ bonuses, so I fear for the future of holding water companies to account if Lib Dem policy is get rid of it. This Government know that the industry needs to go further and faster to address these issues.

In 2022, data indicated that 6.47% of South West Water storm overflows spilled 100 times or more, which was twice the sector average. That is quite simply unsatisfactory. That is why we have introduced our storm overflows discharge reduction plan—the most ambitious plan to address storm overflows discharges in water company history, which will deliver £60 billion of capital investment by 2050 and target our most important sites, including bathing waters first.

The Government have also driven water companies to ensure that we now have 100% monitoring of storm overflows; that is up from 7% in 2010 under the previous Labour Administration. It was the last Labour Administration who brought out self-monitoring; we want to overturn that as we have better data from the roll-out of 100% monitoring.

However, I recognise the progress happening in the south-west. Indeed, I recently visited a pilot scheme at Combe Martin village with my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), where smart water butts and sustainable drainage had been introduced to better manage rainwater. That was having a positive impact. I commend my hon. Friend on the good work that she has been doing in her constituency, working together with her constituents and with campaign groups to ensure that a partnership-led approach can actively work on the ground when it comes to tackling sewage pollution.

The Minister mentioned something that some of his colleagues have referred to. Self-monitoring was either a big problem, in which case I do not know why the Government have not got rid of it in the last 14 years, or it was not. He needs to be credible about this. If he is trying to say that self-monitoring is a problem, they should have done something years ago.

That is why this Government have rolled out 100% monitoring of our storm overflows; once we have the data, we are able to hold failing water companies to account. That is exactly what this Government intend to do through our “Plan for Water”, which is all about more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement.

I also wish to address some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) regarding South West Water’s resilience to drought, as I know many in the region experienced extended hosepipe bans. I am pleased to say that South West Water has informed us that, as of 22 February 2024, the Roadford reservoir is now at 100% capacity and Colliford is at 87%, showing significant improvement. The Environment Agency continues to work with the company on a range of new sources to improve resilience. I recently visited Hawks Tor, a former clay pit, that has been brought into the water supply to try to deal with some of those water resilience issues.

Many Members mentioned the issue of investment. Of course, addressing these concerns requires investment, and this responds to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). Following a DEFRA commission, Ofwat—which, it seems, the Lib Dems want to abolish—agreed to accelerate £128 million of funding to accelerate smart metering, build nutrient removal systems to improve river water quality and accelerate 15 storm overflow improvements in the Falmouth and Sidmouth catchments.

South West Water’s latest business plans include a significant £2.8 billion package of investment, which Ofwat is now scrutinising to ensure that it will truly deliver for customers and begin to turn its poor record around. Its commitments will also include achieving the lowest level of pollution incidence in the sector and significantly increasing water quality and water resilience by investment in new treatment works, reservoirs and tackling leakage. South West Water must now deliver on those ambitious plans, and this Government will hold it to account every step of the way. I look forward to my next meeting with the chief executive to be able to get an update on those plans.

I also wish to assure the House that the Government and our regulators, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, do not take underperformance lightly. As a result of failing to meet its performance commitments, Ofwat has directed South West Water to return £9.2 million to customers during the financial year of 2024-25, in addition to the £13.3 million returned in the financial year 2022-23. I again reiterate that, if the Lib Dems want to get rid of Ofwat, I am not quite sure who would be directing South West Water to do that.

South West Water was also instructed by Ofwat to produce a service commitment plan to demonstrate how it will meet the commitments made at the start of the current five-year price review period, and that was updated in November 2023. As I have said, I will shortly be meeting the chief executive of South West Water again to discuss progress on its plans and to hold the water company to account on its specific failures on pollution incidents.

When water companies fall short, we will not hesitate to hold them to account. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has secured fines of over £150 million, including a £2.1 million fine for South West Water in April 2023. Furthermore, under the action taken by this Government, we will be strengthening regulation to ensure that regulators have the tools to hold water companies to account. I want to thank all Members for their contributions today, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon for bringing this important debate before the House.

Thank you, Mr Henderson. This has been a really good debate, following on from the debate that I led last year as well. It is clear that people, on a cross-party basis, care about this. We have been paying South West Water bills for decades—I know my family has—and we all want to get value for money. We do not think that we have got that historically. If I may, I will make a point to the Liberal Democrats again. In January, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), when talking about the EA and Ofwat, said:

“the Government probably ought to be stepping in and removing those regulators”.—[Official Report, 31 January 2024; Vol. 744, c. 916.]

As ever, Lib Dem policy is as clear as mud.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the performance of South West Water.

Sitting adjourned.