Why sewage is causing a political stink

Tory MPs face widespread anger after voting against bid to reduce amount of waste discharged into rivers

A dead fish by the Thames
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The government is under fire after MPs voted down an amendment that would have legally required water companies to reduce the amount of sewage released into UK waterways.

Tory MPs are facing abuse on social media following the Commons vote last week on an amendment to the Environment Bill, which is now going before the Lords – setting the stage for further conflict.

The problem with sewage

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The Thames and other waterways are polluted because our water system can’t cope with rising levels of rainfall, explained Susannah Butter in the London Evening Standard.

“In the 19th century they called it the Great Stink,” she wrote, “but back then they built sewers to solve it.”

Now, she continued, “we are facing stink 2.0” because “heavier rainfall is causing our Victorian sewers to overflow”.

The vote

The Environment Bill is designed to replace EU environmental regulations following Brexit. A House of Lords amendment sought to “place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and other inland waters”.

The government removed this change in the Commons, with the backing of 265 votes to 202. Among the votes against were 22 Conservative MPs, including nine ex-ministers and six current select committee chairs, who rebelled by voting to keep the Lords amendment.

Defending the government’s position, Rebecca Pow, a junior environment minister, told MPs that it would cost between an estimated £150bn and £660bn to get rid of storm sewage overflows, which “release excess storm water from combined sewers when they become overwhelmed”, explained Labour List.

Pow argued that overflows “should potentially always remain” as an emergency measure in the event of flooding.

Former environment secretary Owen Paterson warned that “misreporting” about the votes on the bill was “dangerously inflammatory” – and that sewage would be diverted onto roads if it could not flow into rivers.

He tweeted: “The amendment I opposed contained un-costed and unrealistic ideas which would have actually diverted sewage to roads in towns.”

Labour voted against the government. A spokesperson said the party would “have sympathy with the ministers’ argument that in extremis, in the event of severe weather, raw sewage discharges into rivers should be permissible”. But instead, it is a “daily, regular, continual occurrence” that is “unacceptable”, the spokesperson argued.

Wave of anger

The government appears to have launched a social media drive after Tory MPs were criticised over last week’s sewage vote.

MPs including Steve Brine, Ben Everitt, Michael Fabricant, Anne Marie Morris and Sally-Ann Hart published similar “explainers” about the vote on their websites.

Paterson is one of many Tory MPs who faced a “name and shame” campaign on social media. He said: “We should not be referring to MPs as ‘scum’ at any time, especially only a week after the horrific murder of Sir David Amess.”

The next step

The Evening Standard’s Butter conceded that “adapting a system that is nearly 150 years old to cope with sudden environmental change was never going to be easy”. While a “15-mile-long super sewer is being built under London to take some of the strain”, experts have said it will need to be twice as big to be effective.

However, she added, “these types of problems have been solved before – acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer have been mitigated by the world coming together and thinking of solutions”.

The amendment is expected to be sent back to the Commons by the Lords, and ministers fear that Conservative backbenchers who abstained last time might switch to supporting the amendment.

An unnamed Tory MP told The Guardian that government members were – ironically – “shitting themselves” over what could happen next.

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