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Pollution: Rivers and Beaches

Volume 827: debated on Monday 30 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect rivers and beaches from pollution.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The Government are committed to protecting our water bodies from pollution. In December we announced our ambitious suite of legally binding Environment Act targets, including four targets to address pressures on the water environment. To tackle agricultural pollution, in November we published a grant scheme to improve slurry storage on farms, alongside almost doubling the budget for our catchment-sensitive farming partnership. In August 2022, we also published our £56 billion plan to reduce sewage discharges.

I thank the Minister for that Answer, but in the light of increasing public alarm, Thames Water now provides live information on pollution caused by combined sewage overflow spills. When will the Government mandate all water companies to provide their customers with this information?

By the end of this year. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s interest in this subject. In 2013, I wrote to every water company in England and was amazed to find that only 5% of combined sewage outflows were registered anywhere. We did not know, and the reason we now know and are able to hold them to account is that we now have over 90% of those, and by the end of this year we will have 100%, so all the concerns people have can be measured in real time. We are also requiring water companies to put telemetry just below outflows so we can see precisely the impact of legal outflows and use it for enforcement for when there are illegal discharges into rivers.

My Lords, I refer to my interest as listed in the register. Does my noble friend agree that sustainable drainage systems have a vital role to play in preventing sewage entering these surface water overflows and combined sewers? Will he therefore bring forward the deadline to this year to ensure that Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, on obligatory, mandatory sustainable sewage drains, is put in place as it has been in Wales?

Yes, we have announced that we will be consulting this year with a view to making an announcement about implementation of the Flood and Water Management Act.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is shameful and indeed embarrassing that a British windsurfer, Sarah Jackson, has had to leave Britain because she cannot train in British waters due to the amount of sewage pollution in so many of our coastal areas? She has had to go to Spain in order to train.

That is highly regrettable. I am not aware of that case but no doubt the noble Duke will make me aware of it. One of our targets is about bathing waters, and the classification figures for 2022 were that 72.1% of them were in excellent condition, 20.8% good, 4.3% insufficient and 2.9% poor. Either there is a discrepancy in the information individuals hold on where they can swim, or a discrepancy in the statistics the Government are receiving from very eminent sources. However, I am happy to discuss this further with the noble Duke.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister knows that as of last Saturday, 28 January, Thames Water’s sewage overflow at Stratfield Mortimer had been dumping sewage non-stop for a total of 944 hours and 15 minutes—that is, dumping sewage continuously since 19 December last year. Does the Minister agree that, since Thames Water’s national television advertising must be costing quite a lot of money, that money would be better spent on renewing its sewage outflow pipes?

Stratfield Mortimer is well known to me and others in this Chamber. That is an appalling statistic, and it is why the Government have brought in strict measures that no other Government have ever brought in before. Through our regulator, Ofwat, we are requiring water companies to address this problem. We are requiring them to spend £56 billion of capex on improvements, and we are taking other measures, including enforcement. We have increased money to the Environment Agency and increased the number of inspectors, recognising that it is not just water companies; there are problems that come from farming and from poor connections. There are also a host of different other measures. That is why we are looking at water quality in our rivers holistically and are determined to see the improvements that the public desire.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a Church Commissioner in the farming industry. What attention are the Government paying to pollution as we get more and more extreme weather events, with climate change being upon us?

The right reverend Prelate is right to raise this issue. We are seeing more extremes of climate, and that is resulting in a lot of runoff into our rivers at particular times. That is why, for example, we are introducing in our environmental land management schemes a determination to use soil more effectively by binding it together with green cover crops, thus preventing it going into the rivers. I am keen to have a conversation with the Church Commissioners, one of the biggest landowners in the country, about how they are interacting with their farmers and supporting them in taking up these schemes, and about how we can work together with large and small landowners and farmers to ensure that we are improving the quality of our environment, particularly our rivers.

My Lords, on Thursday the Leader of the House of Commons said that in 2010, only 6% of storm overflows were monitored but the figure is now 100%. However, it is not true that all overflows are monitored, so can the Minister confirm the actual figure today? Can he also confirm whether the department or the regulator collects data on the number of monitors that are offline and the reasons for them being unavailable? My noble friend Lord Watson mentioned Thames Water. According to its map, some two dozen of its monitors were out of action this morning.

The statistic is absolutely right—I can remember seeing it and being stunned that the Government prior to the coalition Government had no idea about this. They knew about only 5% of the storm overflows, so we set about getting that data. If the person quoted in the other place said 100%, it is not quite that but it is nearly there: we are in the 90s, and by the end of this year the figure will be 100%. If the telemetry we require to measure the quality is not working, I am happy to take any cases up with the Environment Agency and make sure that we are applying this.

Can the Minister tell me how long this will take? I believe the £56 billion that he referred to will take about 25 years to roll out and invest. When will we be able to see a visible difference?

We have announced our targets in the provisions of the Environment Act—some of those are for 2035, and some are for 2038—and we will review them in 2027 to see how they are going. There are others that are more long term. There was an unfortunate mistake in a regret amendment last week, in which it was claimed, somehow, that we are pushing this out to 2063. What is absolutely true is that we are sticking to the requirements of the water framework directive, as we did when we were in the EU. We are emboldening that with other provisions, such as the ones in the amendments to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. So, there is a degree of urgency because we want these matters to be dealt with as quickly as possible. I urge the noble Lord not to listen to what was claimed in the regret amendment last week.

My Lords, Southern Water is a persistent offender and has been fined in the past for discharging sewage into coastal seas and waterways. Despite this, there has been no change in its working practices. People are suffering stomach upsets and ear infections—the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has referred to this. As heavy fines appear to make no difference, ahead of summer, does the Minister believe that the measures he has mentioned today will make a real difference to the quality of water around our coasts and keep our children and swimmers safe?

The measures we are bringing in can lead to fines of up to 10% of water companies’ turnover, and the inflicting of fines of over £100 million on a single water company. This will see a real drive towards raising standards across the piece, and not just in the area of enforcement. We have more enforcement officers in the Environment Agency to take up any complaints people have about water quality, but we are also making sure that we tie this in holistically. For example, our requirement that water companies get to net zero means no longer allowing sludge to be improperly applied to the land, and looking at such areas as a resource, rather than something that, ultimately, can pollute. We are working holistically across the water sector to improve the situation.