Sewage will be diverted on to roads if it can’t flow into rivers, warns MP

·3-min read
Owen Paterson - Victoria Jones/PA
Owen Paterson - Victoria Jones/PA

Sewage would be diverted on to roads if it cannot flow into rivers, a Tory MP warned on Monday, as the Government was accused of enabling water companies to dump raw waste into waterways.

MPs provoked anger among campaigners last week by voting down an amendment to the Environment Bill to “place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and other inland waters”.

It was, however, supported by 22 Tory MPs, setting the stage for a potential further rebellion against the Government as the Bill returns to the Lords on Tuesday, where the measures are likely to be re-inserted ahead of a fresh Commons vote.

MPs who rejected the legal duty have since found themselves subjected to a “name and shame” campaign on social media by environmentalists, who claim they have made it easier for companies to dump sewage into rivers.

It prompted a concerted response from Tory MPs on Monday who claimed the issue was being deliberately misrepresented, as the amendment would cost as much as £600 billion and ignored existing safeguards.

‘We should not be referring to MPs as “scum”’

Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary and MP for North Shropshire, said the tone of the coverage had been “dangerously inflammatory”, writing on social media: “The amendment I opposed contained uncosted and unrealistic ideas which would have actually diverted sewage to roads in towns.”

He added: “The tone of misreporting was also totally inappropriate. We should not be referring to MPs as ‘scum’ at any time, especially only a week after the horrific murder of Sir David Amess.”

Charities including the Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage, along with celebrities such as Gary Lineker, were among those calling for ministers on Monday to take tougher action to stop water companies discharging sewage into rivers.

A recent study by the Rivers Trust found all of England’s rivers are currently failing to pass cleanliness tests, with at least 53 per cent of them in a poor state in part due to water companies releasing raw and partially-treated sewage.

The problem is worsened during bad weather, when wastewater is allowed to enter rivers to ease pressure on the sewer network.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the amendment to the Environment Bill - introduced by the Duke of Wellington - would require an overhaul of the Victorian sewage system which would cost more than £150 billion. Other Tory MPs have suggested it could cost as much as £600 billion.

Campaigner: ‘This is completely farcical’

But Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, told The Telegraph that campaigners had seen “no calculations” to support the “crazy numbers being bandied about”, adding: “This is completely farcical.”

He said: “I’ve got so many friends - wild swimmers, triathletes, stand-up paddleboarders - who have seen the impact of this. I know people have become sick from big swims in rivers, it’s just appalling - these should be safe spaces for people to use.”

Feargal Sharkey, the former singer of the punk band The Undertones turned environmental campaigner, said the UK could not lecture the rest of the world about climate change at Cop26 given the state of its rivers.

Asked whether he would be considering legal action over the issue, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Clearly, a group of us now feel that the Government has proved itself unwilling and incapable of dealing with this situation - perhaps someone else has to.”

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