Campaigners have said they are “disappointed” that MPs failed to back a campaign to put a legal duty on water companies to stop raw sewage from being poured into waterways.
They are pressing for water companies to pay to restore England’s coastlines after dumping sewage into rivers.
Last week, MPs voted by 268 to 204 to disagree with an amendment to the Environment Bill tabled in the Lords which sought to place a new duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers and demonstrate reductions in the harm caused by the discharges.
Sewage can be pumped out of the sewerage system and into rivers through combined sewer overflows – otherwise known as a storm overflow or release valve. The overflows are designed to release excess water following heavy rain or a storm to stop sewage backing up into homes.
To stop this happening, water companies are allowed to release the rainwater, and a smaller amount of untreated sewage, into the country’s waterways.
The Environment Agency has reported that, in the last year, raw sewage was discharged into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) branded “unacceptable”.
Commenting on footage of raw sewage being released into the rivers and seas around the country, shadow Defra secretary Luke Pollard said: “People are right to be upset at the dreadful state of England’s rivers.
“Not one English river is in a healthy condition and there has been zero improvements since 2016.
“The Government is to blame for allowing water companies to vent raw sewage into our rivers and sea seemingly at will.
“The Conservatives should urgently U-turn on their decision to block the Environment Bill amendment so that water companies are forced to reduce the amount of sewage they pump into our rivers and seas.
“The millions which go to shareholders do nothing to help with cleaning up our rivers and seas.
“The Tories should learn from the record and experience of the Welsh Labour Government, who have been able to require sustainable drainage systems to reduce the load on sewage systems and make investing to tackle future challenges a top priority.”
Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said water companies have not “got a right to destroy these spaces”.
He told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: “The amendment that is being called for is reasonable. We believe the water companies need to cut into dividends they make every year to restore our rivers and our coastlines.
“They haven’t got a right to destroy these spaces and need to take the ambitious steps to restore them and we need to make sure the industry is not putting their profits ahead of making our spaces safe.”
It has been reported that it would cost between £150 billion and £160 billion to make waterways safer.
Defra says this work would include the complete separation of the sewerage systems, which could lead to “potentially significant disruption for homes, businesses and infrastructure across the country”.
However, they have “made it clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority”.
Huw Merriman, Tory MP for Bexhill and Battle, told BBC News on Tuesday: “We cannot have sewage being put into our seas. Our seas are unclean and unhealthy to swim in, and people’s lives are blighted because, when they see heavy rainfall, they then worry about sewage coming into their households.
“Ultimately, my constituents have to live with this as a coastal community. I have to put them before what the Government is telling me I should do.”
Surfers Against Sewage said in a blog post last week that they will continue to rally, with Mr Tagholm saying: “In this most important of environmental decades, it’s shocking that the Government recommended that MPs reject progressive and ambitious amendments that would protect water, air and nature.
“Why wouldn’t they want water companies to have a legal obligation not to pollute our rivers and ocean with sewage? It beggars belief and hardly shows a commitment to be the greenest Government ever. It’s time for more ambitious thinking and law that builds protected nature back into public ownership rather than leaving it to the ravages of shareholder interests.”
Downing Street has defended the Government’s actions on sewage discharges.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We completely agree the current failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges is unacceptable.”
The spokesman said the intentions of the measures being pushed by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords were “already being delivered” in the Environment Bill.
The amendment put forward by the peer “remains uncosted”, but “the initial assessments are over £150 billion and that would mean that individuals – every one of us taxpayers – paying potentially thousands of pounds each as a result”.
“So it’s not right to sign a blank cheque on behalf of customers without understanding the trade-offs and the bills that would be involved,” the spokesman said.
But “tougher legal duties” were being placed on water companies and “we will continue to listen to MPs who have legitimate concerns”.
The bill will go back before peers for scrutiny after the amendment was voted down.