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House of Commons Hansard
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10 July 2018
Volume 644

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give the Environment Agency additional powers to control and reduce discharge from combined sewer overflows; to make other provision about bathing water quality and clean beach initiatives; and for connected purposes.

I rise to present this Bill in the name of myself and my hon. Friends. The environment is very important to my constituents. I spend a lot of time taking questions in primary and secondary schools in North Cornwall and one question always comes up: “What are you doing about the environment?” Bathing waters are one of the most important reasons why people visit North Cornwall. I have some of the most beautiful blue flag beaches in the whole of the UK, and some of the most spectacular surfing and waves around the country. However, we have a significant problem.

My constituency has an antiquated Victorian sewerage system, as do many areas around the UK. The system is completely incapable of dealing with the torrential rain events that we have seen in recent years. Furthermore, when Governments invest in infrastructure, they tend to like people to be able to see that investment, and to be frank, sewers are not really that sexy. However, they serve a valuable purpose in taking away our surface water, general waste water and sewage to process. Most of the country relies on the combined sewer network in which surface water and toilet water are combined and treated together. When we have these big downpours and rain events, the system simply cannot cope and water companies have to flush excess surface water and sewage into the sea. These incidents are described as combined sewer overflows, and they happen more regularly than many people think. When one of these events happens, my inbox is filled with surfers and swimmers asking me to do something. The purpose of the Bill is to do just that.

The Environment Agency publishes extensive data on individual bathing waters on its website, showing pressures on water quality on specific beaches and up-to-date sampling information. Real-time monitoring information websites are helpful to my constituents, but at present this is just information provided for the sake of it, and recent statistics from the World Wide Fund for Nature show that 77% of events do not result in a follow-up. I welcome and praise the work being done by South West Water in the west country and by other water companies around the UK, but we could and should go much further. Our environment deserves better than letting sewage spill into our oceans.

I know that many hon. Members feel that water companies have large payrolls and big corporate bonuses, and that more of their profits should be reinvested into the system. In fact the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently challenged the water companies to improve their financial and corporate behaviours in order to restore public trust in the sector. It is true to say that some water companies’ financial and corporate behaviours have eroded the public’s trust in the sector, and they must improve their financial and corporate behaviours and practices, increase investment and offer fair prices to customers in order to restore that trust.

However, I think it would be unfair to ask the water companies to update the antiquated sewerage systems, so we have come up with a different way of approaching the issue. The reason that the system cannot cope is that the surface water run-off is too heavy during heavy rainfall events. The Bill will give the Environment Agency powers to fine water companies that allow sewage spills into the sea, and to reinvest that money in three different ways. First, it would provide farmers with funds to store water in attenuation ponds to slow down the water flow. Secondly, we should create more lakes and reservoirs—a proposal that is supported by the Angling Trust. Thirdly, in the areas with the most severe problems, the water companies should provide funding for free water butts and the fitting of those water butts in residential properties. Managing surface water would stop the sewage spills and allow the water companies to manage our waste water better.

The monitoring of the spills is also quite inadequate, and the Bill would ask the Environment Agency to monitor them all year round instead of doing so only in the summer months, as it does at the moment. There are many hardy souls who brave the waves in Cornwall in the middle of winter, and they want the same protections that are afforded the swimmers and surfers on the beaches in the summer months. I was able to glean the following information on the beaches in North Cornwall in preparation for today. The beaches that have had no spills in the past five years are Trevone, Harlyn bay, Trebarwith Strand, Crackington Haven and Crooklets in Bude. There is absolutely no information on Porthcothan, Treyarnon bay, Constantine bay, Mother Ivey’s bay, Daymer bay, Northcott Mouth and Sandymouth. Even Booby’s Bay had no information. So we can see that we need better monitoring of these processes. Polzeath had no spills last year but four the year before. Widemouth bay had three spills this year and five last year. Summerleaze in Bude in my constituency had four this year and 15 last year. Those are the figures just for North Cornwall, but I know that these issues affect many coastal areas and I would expect to see similar data from many other areas around the country.

I have received a number of endorsements for the Bill. I had a phone call from Surfers Against Sewage yesterday, and they are very supportive of it. The Angling Trust says that although sewage spills along the coastline regularly hit the headlines, 89% of combined sewage overflows actually discharge into the rivers. The trust is very supportive of the Bill and its contents. Locally, I have the support of the fabulous Bude Cleaner Seas project, which has campaigned for so long on environmental protection around our coast. I also have the support of the Polzeath Marine Conservation Group.

The European waters directives have been good for protecting our bathing waters, but I believe that we can go further. My list of supporters for the Bill extends past the 11 names that I am allowed to read out today, and I apologise to those who have given me their support but who I am unable to name at this time. I believe that the measures in the Bill will address a problem that has existed for a long time in North Cornwall and around the country, and I hope that elements of the Bill or indeed the Bill itself can make progress through the House so that all my constituents will be able to feel that we are leaving this environment in a better state than we found it in.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Scott Mann, Richard Benyon, Mr Ben Bradshaw, Robert Courts, Steve Double, James Heappey, Craig Mackinlay, Dame Cheryl Gillan, Mrs Sheryll Murray, Justine Greening, Tim Loughton and David Morris present the Bill.

Scott Mann accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 248).