When I was a child, I was sure I’d catch my death of cold when made to go in the sea at Blackpool. These days you’re more likely to die of toxic poison. Our rivers and seas are dirty and polluted. Raw sewage is spilled into our canals and rivers somewhere every 2 ½ minutes. That is shocking. And it’s getting worse. “Storm overflows” are meant to be an exceptional circumstance when so much rain and drain water are around that the water companies are able to pump sewage into our rivers to prevent it flooding our homes. But it’s no longer exceptional. In 2020 there were an astonishing 400,000 “storm overflows”, a much higher figure than in previous years. The water companies treat this as normal and our rivers are kept toxic. United Utilities, our water company, even had 12 incidents when sewage was discharged when there was no rain.
We were promised by this government some years back that by 2027, 75% of our rivers would be “good”. We’re not going to get anywhere near that target. Most recent figures tell us only 16% are “good” and that’s unchanged over the previous five years.
Bear in mind water companies don’t have a right to pollute and it’s an offence. There is no doubt that government underfunding of the Environment Agency means it can’t monitor the action of the companies as it should. Ofwat, the companies regulator, is a toothless body which simply doesn’t regulate. So the water companies have not invested in preventing all this in the years since privatisation. But it’s no wonder when they don’t get caught. The number of prosecutions has dropped well down. What has kept well up, of course, has been the dividends paid out. Some at least of the £296 million paid as dividends by United Utilities could have been invested in overflow prevention but it wasn’t.
Campaign groups like the wonderfully named Surfers against Sewage have been fighting this battle for years. I’ve raised it in Parliament as have other MPs. But we’ve got to insist that the right to clean rivers and seas is a priority and surveys show 95% of the population agree. I’d love to know who the other 5% are.
One piece of good news is that a new treaty has been agreed to make 30% of our deepest seas and oceans as protected areas. I have, like many others, campaigned for this and it’s a real step to safeguard the Ocean’s biodiversity. We can do things when the political will is there.
This article was originally published in the Rochdale Observer on 11 March 2023.