Water is our most precious resource: No excuse for sewage in our rivers and seas

Jessica Toale is a Councillor in Westminster and the Co-Chair of the Labour Foreign Policy Group

The UK is blessed with some of the world’s best beaches – even if we don’t always have the weather to match. In the summers, thousands of people flock to places like Bournemouth and Boscombe to enjoy the pristine sandy beaches, and throughout the year people enjoy surfing the breaks alongside their piers. But this year, many came in for a nasty surprise.

As a surfer and a swimmer, I’ve been horrified by reports that water companies are allowing raw sewage to flood into our rivers and seas – and of the impacts this is having on public health and the environment. Bournemouth and Boscombe have been increasingly red-flagged by the RNLI due to concerns about pollution levels. 

Private water companies claim that raw sewage overspill is only released into the UK’s waterways as a measure of last resort during periods of heavy rain. However, according to campaigners, this happened almost 150 times over the last year during dry periods. Ninety-five of these spills were located at areas where the water quality was classified as ‘excellent’, and many are near protected areas of water.

At the beginning of November this year sewage was released into the sea at seven beaches between Christchurch and Poole twice in just one week. The Council is now even considering putting sensors at Boscombe pier to manage the growing public health threat.

This is a scandal has rightly attracted public outrage. This is both a health hazard exposing swimmers to potentially deadly bacteria and a threat to biodiversity of our rivers and coastal waters. It is also having an effect on people’s livelihoods. Just this week oyster farmers on Mersea Island in Essex have joined a legal challenge against the government because their 300-year-old business risks collapse. There are countless other businesses that could suffer.

But this state of affairs is not simply an accident. It is a direct consequence of Tory failure to enforce and strengthen regulations on water companies across the UK. They even voted against an amendment to the environment bill that would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to pump waste into rivers – and then mounted a feeble defence of the decision.

Our coastal communities, swimmers and surfers deserve better. Labour has a long tradition of environmental protection, from the establishment of national parks and the introduction of the Climate Change Act to the commitments to increase capital spending on measures like offshore wind farms.

To tackle the travesty affecting our waterways, Labour will have to:  

  • Enforce and tighten regulations against water companies – including considering tougher sanctions on companies that fails to uphold standards and using fines to support improvements to infrastructure.
  • Fund a massive upgrade to our aging sewer systems and enact legislation to increase the use of sustainable drainage systems that reduce the amount of rainwater entering the sewer system in new developments.
  • Require housing developers to undertake thorough assessments of local sewer systems’ capacity and invest to enhance this where necessary. They must be prevented from uncontrolled connection to sewers.
  • Mount a public awareness campaign about the impacts of flushing wet wipes and other materials that cause blockages and fatbergs.

The UK’s water system is unique – it is totally privatised. And it is a broken system that serves neither our citizens nor the environment. Water companies cannot continue to profit from environmentally damaging behaviours when we face both a cost of living and an environmental crisis.  Water is the most important resource we have and must be treated as such.

For more information:

Safer Seas and Rivers service – maps of pollution alerts – https://www.sas.org.uk/map/

Surfers Against Sewage – https://www.sas.org.uk/  

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