This question is being debated right now in Parliament in the last stages of the Environment Bill.
The Bill going makes progress in the right direction, including a new Office of Environmental Protection and new river quality targets - for example on waste water, phosphates and nitrates.
But the issue of ‘storm discharges’ ie sewage going into our rivers is the one attracting most attention after a Lords Amendment to eliminate them was rejected.
Why did I vote against the amendment?
The problem is this: no-one wants sewage in rivers, but our country currently has 125,000 miles of (often Victorian) drains which carry both water (rain) and sewage.
When there is too much rain these empty into our water courses. If there was an instant ban from doing so we would simply have sewage floating about in the street, leaking into houses and gardens.
So the Bill requires water companies to come up with a costed plan to resolve this by next September.
The cost bit is important because Water UK estimates the total bill will be between £350 and £550 billion pounds. That’s the same cost as the pandemic so far. Massive.
There are only 3 ways of paying for this: the consumer, the water companies and the taxpayer. There is no way I would sign up to something that adds hundreds of pounds to your water bills, and there is no way that the water companies can afford all this cost at once.
Equally some of you will remember that when Severn Trent sorted the Victorian drains in Kingsholm (Worcester St) and Lower Westgate St after the 2007 and 2010 floods it was months and months of disruption. We can’t do the whole of any city at the same time, causing chaos in the roads and closing businesses.
So a plan matters.
But I would like us to go a bit further than the current Bill and put a duty on the water companies to eliminate Combined Storage Overflows, with progressive reductions every year.
That would be in line with a recent private member’s bill, from which I took the main elements into this Bill months ago, but the government did not include the ‘duty’ part. The difference between a plan and a duty sounds pretty small - but it would be tougher and mean that everyone knows that something is going to start happening fast.
So if (probably when) the Lords amendment comes back again next week I very much hope that the government will tweak it (it was badly drafted) and include a duty on reducing the combined drains, with a time period to be agreed.
That’s what I’ve been working for informally these last few days, it's what I suggested on Newsnight last night (Richard Graham MP on Newsnight - Storm Overflows - YouTube) and I believe it’s the right thing to do, it requires a bit of compromise on all sides and it can be achieved next week.
Some of the eco warriors lining up (slightly bizarrely) behind the Duke of Wellington and his Lords amendment are not bothered about cost - they don’t mind if our water companies go bankrupt because they think nationalised utilities are the answer with taxpayers paying salaries and investment, that dividends are evil and that there should be a ban tomorrow on any sewage in water courses full stop.
But they forget that it’s the pension funds not squillionaires that own eg Severn Trent and my retired constituents benefit from those dividends.
They forget that the Victorian drains of Lower Westgate and Kingsholm in Gloucester were changed and improved by £10 million from Severn Trent plc - the old nationalised body never had the capital to do it. That we want capital spent on better waste water and more reservoirs to help stop the Severn from flooding - this is not the only cost we want water companies to shoulder.
And they also forget that a ban tomorrow will mean poo in your street the next time the drains fill up, if that drain combines water and sewage.
As always we need to be practical in solving the problem. That’s why Injoined the Bill Cttee and spent about 170 hours last winter working in the Bill to get the balance on environmental improvements right. I believe the government is 95% of the way there and will continue to encourage them to do a wee bit more, get the duty in there and pass the Bill next week.
At that stage with both a duty to reduce and plans required on how and at what cost to consumers, this would be a Bill that passes the test of reducing waste discharges as quickly and practically as possible. It will take time and investment - but we will get to where we all want to.
Any constituent is of course welcome to mail me any queries to me on firstname.lastname@example.org