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River Pollution

Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the level of the pollution in rivers in England, and (2) the causes.

My Lords, the Environment Agency’s State of the Environment: Water Quality report in 2018 is the most recent assessment of water pollution. We assess pollution levels to understand their impact on water ecology and human health and to mitigate them. The main causes of pollution are agriculture, sewage discharges and chemicals from industry and other sectors, some of which still persist from past activities.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but would he agree that the present situation is a total disgrace? More than 200,000 tonnes of raw sewage go into our rivers every year. Even in 2018 only 14% of our rivers passed as fit for purpose and they have probably got worse since then, and only three cases were taken to court in 2018, despite all this. Does he agree that there is a need for a much stronger regulatory regime? Does he also agree that the situation is so serious that we need some kind of parliamentary inquiry into what is happening to the nation’s well-being and health?

My Lords, I certainly agree that much more needs to be done. I can tell noble Lords that a new task force has recently been set up between Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and water companies, which will meet very regularly and set out proposals to reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharge, while the Environment Bill that is coming soon to the House will place a statutory requirement on water companies to produce drainage and wastewater management plans. Investment by water companies, incidentally, has meant that pollutant loads to rivers from water industry discharges have declined by between 40% and 70% since 1995, and there are commitments of £4.6 billion of additional investment over the next five years.

My Lords, while we respond to the Covid crisis, we must not neglect the public health risk posed by AMR. Some 12,000 people die every day from a resistant infection, and this is more important than ever during a pandemic. So the proper treatment of wastewater is essential to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes into the environment, but research has recently found that the amount of antibiotics entering the River Thames would need to be cut by 80% to avoid the spread of superbugs. The AMR action plan commits us to finding innovative solutions for removing these drugs and bugs from our watercourses. Will the Minister please make addressing this a personal priority?

AMR is one of the greatest health threats that we face, and there is an increasing focus globally on the environment as a potential reservoir and conduit for it. We are conducting research into the extent of human and animal exposure to AMR from the environment and the risks that it poses. We are funding research at the University of Newcastle, for instance, and working with academics at other universities, including Exeter. We are looking at the impacts of the overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms as well—a problem, I should say, that the industry itself has made a real effort to address. We have a five-year UK national action plan and we will take whatever additional action is necessary.

My Lords, I contribute from the Welsh Marches in Powys, which contain the headwaters of the Wye and the Severn. Our rivers are seriously at risk from an absolutely vast increase of intensive poultry units, in Powys in particular but also in Herefordshire in Shropshire. These leech phosphates and nitrogen into our rivers. May I respectfully suggest that the Government urgently look at this dangerous cross-border issue?

The noble Lord is right: poor practice by farmers leads to run-off fertiliser, slurry, pesticides and various other chemicals, which are extremely damaging to river ecosystems. But even well-managed farms can have impacts on the environment. The catchment-sensitive farming and countryside stewardship schemes inform and incentivise farmers to manage their land in a better way—for example, creating buffer strips between fields and water courses, planting crops that preserve soil health and improving slurry storage, while the new Environmental Land Management Scheme set out in the Agriculture Bill will be a critically important part of a transition to more environmentally sensitive agriculture.

My Lords, the 200,000 occasions of raw sewage being discharged into rivers in 2019, mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, in his follow-up question, totalled 1.5 million hours of discharge, according to the Guardian. Does the Minister accept that it is quite clear that the Government or their agencies have no interest in enforcement? Do the Government accept the legal position, originally stated by the European Court of Justice, that untreated sewage can be released into water bodies only under exceptional circumstances? Clearly this is not being complied with. What urgent action are the Government going to take to deal with this—or are we leaving the EU just to become the dirty man of Europe?

I certainly agree with the noble Lord that raw sewage should only ever be released into water systems as a last resort and in exceptional circumstances. As I mentioned in a previous answer, this issue has been taken up with great energy by my colleague in Defra, Minister Pow, who established and chairs the task force and is committed to doing what is needed from the regulatory, legislative and funding points of view to tackle this very serious problem.

My Lords, there has been a steady increase in outdoor swimming clubs—“wild swimming”, as it has become known. Swimmers are unaware that rivers across the country contain toxic materials such as lead and mercury, as well as insecticides. The Government have committed themselves to ensuring that all rivers are of a good ecological standard by 2027. Will that target be reached? If not, when might it be?

The Environment Agency takes water quality samples at all designated bathing waters during the bathing season. If the water fails in any way to meet the minimum standards, the agency then investigates. If a water company is found to be the cause, the agency then requires the company to take action. In 2019, 98.3% of designated bathing waters met the minimum standards, with 71% classified as excellent. Clearly we have a lot more to do, as all surveys have shown, but the Government have shown a commitment to tackling this issue, both from a legislative point of view and in terms of funding.

With Brexit achieved, reports over the summer suggested that the UK Government could now amend the requirements of the EU-derived water framework directive to make it easier to classify rivers as “good”. Can the Minister confirm whether this is the department’s intention? If so, would not the department’s time be better spent on addressing the root causes of river pollution rather than on lowering standards?

Those reports were based on comments by Sir James Bevan, but they were inaccurate; in fact, they were entirely wrong. Sir James was talking about the importance of environmental regulation and how it can be used to achieve the best outcomes for our environment. He identified ways in which, for example, the water framework directive is not always the best measure of the health of our rivers, but he was very clear that the test of any changes whatever should be better environmental outcomes.

My Lords, sewage remains one of the main pollutants in English waterways. With many pipes not monitored, and under a self-reporting system, it is up to individual water companies to tell the regulator. What level of duty are the Government proposing to require water companies to release figures on exactly how much raw sewage is being released, along with its duration and frequency?

The Environment Bill that is soon to be introduced will, as I said, place a statutory requirement on water companies to produce drainage and wastewater management plans. In addition to that, water companies have agreed that between 2020 and 2025 they will be investing £4.6 billion to protect the environment, of which around £4 billion relates to wastewater.

My Lords, while I believe in tackling root causes, the Minister mentioned buffer zones. They are extremely practical because they reduce pollution going into watercourses and also create biodiversity corridors. At the moment the advice is for 20 metres. Is it perhaps time to increase that to 30 or even 40 metres, to make them even more effective?

The noble Baroness makes an extremely important point. The department is actively looking at what more we can do using the new Nature4Climate Fund and the transition from CAP to ELM to incentivise a much higher standard of management either side of waterways throughout the country. I hope that on the back of that we will be able to produce a compelling programme.

My Lords, according to studies by Greenpeace and Manchester University, microplastic contamination, which brings an array of biodiversity problems to our waterways, is

“pervasive on all river channel beds.”

The UK banning microbeads is a step in the right direction, but only a drop in the ocean. What measures are the Government considering to prevent this and to clear the existing contamination of plastics, preferably before they break down into microplastics—or, worse, nanoplastics—en route to the sea?

Chemicals come from almost all human activities. Much chemical pollution comes from domestic properties—for example, detergents, which go into the sewers—and that is going to continue as long as those chemicals are permissible to use. Particularly damaging chemicals such as mercury are priorities for international action and their use is now regulated or banned. Defra is looking very closely at microplastic pollution in the environment, specifically the water environment, and its work will inform the development of policies to mitigate it and to build on the recent microbead ban, which we introduced last year.