Kicking up a stink over the stink
This week I have largely been involved with the exotic subject of sewage and in particular discharges of raw or partially treated sewage into rivers and sea by local water companies. The Government’s landmark Environment Bill came back to the Commons on Wednesday. It contains some ground-breaking legislation about legally enforceable targets for measures to combat climate change, improve air quality, protect natural habitats and much more which I know constituents will welcome. However, there is one area where many people believe it could go further and that is on compelling water companies to do more to prevent sewage discharges which have been happening too often, and particularly around the south coast of England where Southern Water is the responsible ‘sewerage undertaker’ as they are technically known.
Many constituents wrote to me in support of tougher measures, and I have had a number of reports in the last couple of weeks about unexplained sewage discharges at Shoreham and Southwick in particular. This is something that I have been very concerned with over many years and have worked with organisations like ‘Surfers Against Sewage’ to clean up our beach areas where places like Lancing are popular and well used centres for kite surfing. I have frequently been hot on the heels of Southern Water about making their systems fit for purpose, particularly at the East Worthing Wastewater Treatment Works next to Brooklands. Southern Water have been subject to high profile prosecutions and record fines in the last year though this refers to illegal activity going back before 2016 and whilst I hold no torch for the company and will continue to call them out where necessary, the new management has taken concerted measures to clean up their act, literally. They have just announced a £1bn investment which should speed up that process and it is essential that the number one priority is to curtail sewage spills and improve water quality.
I have written before about how in extreme weather conditions sewage companies are permitted to release untreated water usually through ‘overtopping’ into sea outfalls if there is a risk that the whole system will fail, and residents will suffer from a surge of foul water backing up through manholes and into properties. The problem is that this appears to be happening too often and when there are no apparent extreme weather conditions to justify it. I have asked Southern Waster to be much more transparent and proactive in explaining incidents when they happen, including where reports of sewage slicks do not after all originate from a Southern Water facility. I have also requested further information about the reported discharges that have happened in the last week and will publish their replies on Facebook and in my next constituency e-newsletter out next week.
However, I strongly support stronger legally enforceable safeguards to make it as difficult as possible for water companies to discharge untreated sewage. Subsequently on Wednesday along with a number of Conservative colleagues I voted in favour of an amendment passed in the Lords and sponsored by the Duke of Wellington. It requires:
‘Sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows and that a sewerage undertaker must demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges’
It also imposes duties on the Government and Environment Agency to make sure this happens. The amendment is backed by Surfers Against sewage and many constituents and whilst it did not receive enough votes to go through it is likely that it will ‘ping pong’ back to the Lords and there will be a further opportunity to win more concessions from the Government.
On a side note a number of people expressed concern that sewage spills will harm seaweed which we are looking to plant as part of the Sussex Bay kelp project which of course I have been very involved in. Whilst I am no expert, I am told that the nutrients in sewage are actually beneficial to kelp so this is one rare case where there may actually be an upside to sewage spills but of course not a justification.