Pinch points and bear traps: Why can’t DEFRA shake off the stench of the sewage scandal?

The government continues to be dogged by criticism over sewage dumping, but did Conservative MPs really vote to allow it, and when did the debate get so heated? Shosha Adie investigates

Somerset Mog-Watch Blue Plaque Actions, January 2023. Photo from Extinction Rebellion.

In January this year, parody ‘blue plaques’ in the style of built environment conservation adviser English Heritage’s commemorative signs started to appear at UK beaches and rivers. But rather than celebrating the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked, the parody plaques had a different purpose: to name and shame MPs – and by extension the Tory government – for voting to block an amendment to the Environment Act in late 2021 that aimed to make it harder for water companies to dump raw sewage into England’s waterways and seas.

Needless to say, backbench Tory MPs and the government take a very different view on the issue. A DEFRA spokesperson said the government “has never voted to legalise or weaken any regulations regarding sewage discharges”, and said that “any reports which claim this are untrue.” So if that is the case, what really happened?

The amendment in reference was put forward by crossbench peer Duke of Wellington during the latter stage of the Environment Act’s passage through Parliament, and aimed to place a legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to avoid using combined sewer overflows, and consequently reduce the discharge of untreated sewage.

Conservative MPs voted the amendment down, and the government tabled its own  amendment instead, which required that water companies “must secure a progressive reduction in the adverse harm” caused by sewage dumps.

Fast forward nearly 18 months, and – despite the government’s rebuttals – critics’ claims that MPs voted to legalise sewage dumping just won’t go away. But did backbench MPs actually know what they were setting themselves up for? 

‘Bear trap’

Statements made on both sides regarding the amendment have been fact-checked elsewhere. But what we can say with confidence is that the government was caught off guard by the outcry over the vote, with MPs forced to defend their positions following public anger. No wonder then that backbench MPs reacted angrily earlier this year when they were once again left to defend themselves from a deluge of anger over sewage dumping.

Last month, the Spectator shared Whatsapp exchanges between Conservative MPs,  which showed how some backbenchers feel “parliamentary pinch points” on this topic are being missed by ministers, leaving MPs to fend off aggression over the water targets without warning.

This latest row, described by the magazine, concerns the statutory target set by the government, under the Environment Act to reduce phosphorus loadings from treated wastewater by 80% by 2038 against a 2020 baseline.

The target was framed in a viral tweet by the Liberal Democrats as allowing “water companies to continue dumping sewage into our rivers and seas for another 15 years”, a twist that West Oxfordshire MP Robert Courts described in a Whatsapp exchange as an “obvious bear trap” that MPs could have been warned about in advance.

DEFRA ministers, for their part, accuse the Lib Dems of political opportunism. Water minister Rebecca Pow told ENDS: "It's not surprising that the debate on sewage has become so polarised with the approach the Liberal Democrats have taken by spreading clear untruths.

“We are the only party with a fully costed and realistic plan to tackle not just storm sewage overflows but the wider water landscape and every single one of our actions and votes has only strengthened the law, not weakened it.”

Watershed moment

So when did the debate over sewage become so heated? The founder of campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP), Ash Smith,points to the watershed moment during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 when he and mathematician Peter Hammond revealed that there are more spills than are being reported.

Smith admitted that the current government has “probably come under more pressure than most that have preceded it”, but argued that was largely due to “issues caused by its own policies that keep illegal sewage pollution profitable.”

Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle, head of environmental strategy at Water UK, the membership body for the water industry, also pinpointed the rise in public awareness to the lockdown, which she said “is definitely a change”, but maintained there are misconceptions about how combined sewage outflows (CSOs) operate during a storm.

“You hear the dumping sewage phrase used a lot but nobody goes and presses a button and releases sewage into the environment,” she said. “CSOs operate automatically based on levels of inundation to protect properties. It is like an overflow from a bath. The reason it's so difficult to remove them is that they run under towns and cities. The replacement of all CSOs is going to take a long time.”

According to DEFRA, initial assessments of the costs to totally eliminate untreated sewage being discharged due to storm overflows would cost between £350 billion and £600 billion, as this would require the current system of combined sewage outflows (CSOs) which dates back to the Victorian times to be separated.

According to a Storm Overflow Evidence Project conducted by engineering company Stantec for Water UK, this would cost households between £569 and £999 extra on their water bills per year.

“The level of investment needs to be balanced with keeping customer bills affordable, which is obviously at the front of many people's minds at the moment. So taking a prioritised approach to take pragmatic action is important,” Gilfoyle continued.

The storm overflows reduction plan sets out a “mandatory” £56bn investment programme that requires water companies to improve infrastructure.

However, DEFRA’s assessments of the costs of eliminating untreated sewage discharges have been dismissed by campaigners as “fantasy”. The Angling Trust, for example, says that the Storm Overflow Evidence Project report cites a range of lower cost options for progressively dealing with the worst and most damaging sewage discharges ranging from £3.9bn to £62.7bn - with only modest impact on average water bills in the region of £19 to £58 per year.

WASP’s Ash Smith told ENDS: “The language, especially around investment and privatisation has been highly disingenuous in my view.”

The facts

What this all demonstrates is that politics is a dirty game – particularly when it comes to sewage. Richard Benwell, chief executive Wildlife and Countryside Link, points out that the internet and politics “both push debate towards the extremes”. “The truth is, you don’t need to exaggerate, the facts are shocking enough,” he said.

Those facts include the revelation that, according to data published by the water sector, sewage was last year discharged into water bodies 372,533 times, for around 2.7 million hours. It is widely accepted that the real figures are much higher.

Pow told ENDS that 2,200 sewage works and all the water companies are currently under investigation by the Environment Agency due to an increase in government monitoring of storm overflows. DEFRA has said there will be 100% coverage of CSOs by the end of 2023.