Bishop of St Albans calls for action on sewage disposal in rivers and coastal waters

On 7th July 2022, the House of Lords debated a motion put forward by Lord Oates on Sewage Disposal in Rivers and Coastal Waters. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate – the Bishop’s speech is below along with contributions by other peers:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for achieving this important debate. Many of the horrifying facts and statistics have been laid out with great clarity before your Lordships’ House.

I live in the city of St Albans, which is built next to the ancient Roman city of Verulamium. We have a 17-mile chalk stream which runs through the city called the River Ver, based on its Roman name; it flows eventually into the River Colne. We have a thriving local group of activists, the Ver Valley Society, which was set up and continues to work with great vigour to protect this really important chalk stream—it is really a stream rather than a river.

In 2021, the sewage treatment works at the top of the river spilled for 2,646 hours—just over 100 hundred days, so nearly a third of the year. Not only was that appallingly bad for this unique ecosystem—chalk streams and chalk rivers are mainly found here in this country—it was also bad because of the residual nitrate in the aquifer and it has led to a very poor state of the chalk stream. Insects at the bottom of the food chain are not as plentiful as they once were. Likewise, aquatic plant life is also suffering. It is unacceptable for this lovely, delightful small river, that many of us walk along regularly for leisure, that goes through our park, to be treated so badly.

When preparing for this debate, I was dismayed to learn that, according to the Rivers Trust, only 14% of England’s rivers are deemed to be in good ecological health and every one of them fails to meet chemical standards. Our chalk streams, of which there are only 200 kilometres in the world, are vital and we owe it to our present generation and to future generations to protect them.

This problem of overflow of untreated sewage has been going on for decades. I do not lay all the blame at the door of our present Government; it has gone on much longer than that. Indeed, I offer the Government a degree of credit in the programme that they are setting up to tackle it. It has been sorely neglected for generations and we really need to see much more radical and much faster action if we are to protect these important focuses of the habitat. My question is on the sheer lack of ambition in these targets. Are we really going to have to wait until 2050 to see 80% of total discharges eliminated? Given the existing poor health of our river systems, we need to move much more rapidly.

I am not going to get into the politics of the privatisation of water companies but it is deeply worrying that it looks as if our companies are not taking this with sufficient seriousness. Nine water companies recorded £2.8 billion in profits despite over 400,000 dumps of sewage in 2020. How can that be acceptable? There is a fundamental question of time, of course. We have to give them a period to get it sorted out. But unless we have really ambitious targets, nobody is going to move. It is quite clear from what has been happening that lack of enforcement and lack of targets are allowing our water companies to continue doing what they are doing.

We are talking not just about our chalk streams. I think somebody referred earlier to the Lake District and Lake Windermere, where last year there were reports of increasing algae feeding on the phosphates coming out of the local sewage treatment plant and so on. And it is not just sewage run-off. It is also to do with toxic loads of plastic tyres, heavy metals and silt. We had Questions earlier today about household waste being dumped and so on. Indeed, other problems have been referred to of chemicals coming from medicines and other treatments given to animals which are now affecting the health of organisms and ecosystems in our streams and rivers.

Part of the concern is with the farming industry. As someone who is particularly involved in that, I am aware that it is a problem. The noble Lord, Lord Benyon, who will respond to this debate, knows that there are some quick win-wins here with all the latest best practice in farming. I am proud to say much of it happens in Hertfordshire: I go and visit some of our farmers. We are now using computer systems. We are having precision drilling, which cuts down on the amount of grain you need hugely but also precision use of nitrates and fertilisers can really decrease amounts. This is a win-win when the costs are going up. One of the questions I want to ask the Minister is: what discussions are taking place with the NFU to try to roll out best practice which will both help the industry and make a tangible and significant improvement to this problem?

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, who pointed out compellingly that fines are not the answer—although I hope they will go on being imposed. It sounds to me as if they are simply being factored into the accounts because it is cheaper to pay fines than to do the fundamental work. For goodness’ sake, we now have to have an incentive which means that the money going into this has to be put into the long-term solutions. It must come back to a radical look at the bonuses paid to executives. I am not sufficiently close to the industry to know whether it is feasible to prosecute them. I certainly think that, if there are no bonuses paid until there are dramatic improvements each year, that will wake up a number of people in the industry.

Our river systems face an ecological crisis from multiple angles, all of which need to be tackled. Preventing sewage run-off is key to ensuring the safety of rivers such as the River Ver in St Albans, and my hope is that as we address that our biodiversity will be maintained—indeed, increased—and returned to what it was in the past and that we can really see a more confident future for our waterways in this country.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD): The Environment Agency grants overflow discharge permits to water companies, which should be monitored and managed. The EA can issue enforcement orders if conditions are breached. There is also the threat of Ofwat imposing financial penalties up to 10% of the turnover in a relevant year for the culprit authority. Southern Water had a hefty fine to pay as a result of its illegal discharges; the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, referred to this. Both Ofwat and the Environment Agency are clearly not using their enforcement powers to the full. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans referred to this.

The 25-year environment plan introduced in 2018 clearly set out five environmental principles, with the goal of achieving clean and plentiful water within a generation. Four years have passed since 2018. Significant steps therefore need to be taken to achieve that goal.

The Government have stipulated that water companies will invest £7.1 billion in environmental improvements between 2020 and 2025, including £3.1 billion on storm overflow improvements. This is a significant sum of money, and we are already two years into this five-year timeframe. Can the Minister say how much progress has been made and how much of the money has so far been spent on improvements?

Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab): While we have been enjoying rather dry weather recently, and water companies’ attention may be on supply issues, that should not diminish the importance of continuing to talk about how we deal with challenges around storm overflows and other forms of sewage release. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who is not in his place, gave an appalling example of sewage releases into the River Ver. That kind of behaviour from water companies is not acceptable.

How we treat sewage was also brought into focus recently by the extremely worrying news that traces of the polio virus were found in an east London sewage works. Any release of sewage has potential public health implications, but this incident is particularly concerning.

Lord Benyon (Con): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked some pertinent questions. The water industry was privatised in 1989, with the aim of attracting much-needed investment into the sector through private capital markets, rather than by relying on core government funding. Since privatisation, water companies have delivered £160 billion of investment, including £30 billion invested in the environment. This is equivalent to around £5 billion of investment annually. The privatised model continues to attract investment, and, for the period from 2020 to 2025, water companies have invested £51 billion, including over £7 billion of investment in the environment. This will reduce pollution incidents by 30% and deliver improvements to more than 12,000 kilometres of rivers.

The right reverend Prelate talked about the importance of joining up the pollution in our rivers with our farming policy, and he is absolutely right. I was in his diocese recently at the Groundswell event, which showed how farmers can weaponise their soil to protect rivers and the environment. He will be pleased to see the Government’s riparian tree-planting proposals, which will protect river systems by planting more trees on the edge of water.

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