With raw sewage regularly turning up on the shores of “Stool Britannia”, most recently seen happening in the newly crowned city of Southend, the government has been caught with its trousers down. Public reaction to what some are calling “shitgate” has been vociferous and MPs have been inundated with complaints
This summer, my family and I made as much use of what Britain had to offer as possible. We were lucky to visit Bournemouth in the one week of July that England basked in radiant heat. A few weeks earlier, in June, we had visited Minnis Bay on the South Coast as part of a Fathers’ Day day out. It wasn’t the idyllic family beach visit we had anticipated. In the distance, we had seen some machinery sweeping up the sand, but we didn’t pay much attention, more interested in some ice creams and playing in the sand.
“You must leave this beach”
We had never taken our 9 month old to the beach before, so couldn’t wait to show him the delights of making sandcastles. As I placed him on the sand, snapping some photos of his first impressions , I caught sight of a man approaching us, who was in the background of some of the pictures. I looked up at his grave face expecting just a perfunctory “hello”, as he passed, only for him to politely – but firmly – order us off the beach. Sweeping up our three children back onto the concrete walkway, lined with Beach huts, we listened as he explained that only a few hours before, the sand had been covered in a layer of human excrement. We realised that the machinery we’d seen in the distance was skimming a layer of raw sewage off the sand. The environmental protection officer explained that he had complained bitterly to the environment agency that no beach closure signs had been sent to him.
Save Thanet Earth
Horrifed, we cleaned up the children as best we could from the offending sand and rushed them home to a bath. I wrote an impassioned email of complaint to the environment agency and then found articles detailing the extent of the issue. Three days earlier, Southern Water claims that a lightning strike damaged its site in Margate which resulted in what it called “heavily diluted wastewater” being released from the emergency outfall.
The leader of the council said that this was “no excuse” and referred to what she called “repetitive failure of this plant for over a decade”. Thanet council demanded compensation for the clean up and local media pointed to record fines of £2m issued 6 years earlier.
Further sewage spills have occurred since then, in August and, most recently, today. Last weekend there was heavy rainfall causing surface water flooding and today Southend-on-sea was closed due to raw sewage leaking out of drains. Anglia Water blamed a giant sinkhole at Southend Sewage Treatment Works. They said that they were releasing waste water into the sea to prevent it from flooding people’s home and gardens.
Figures show that, in the last year, raw sewage has been leaked into our coastal waters as well as Englands rivers more than 400,000 times. This equates to three million hours of sewage poisoning our waterways. With flooding becoming a more common problem in many parts of the UK due to climate change, many have pointed to fears about the risks of Cholera, which can happen when water is contaminated with human waste. Others have raised fears about other countries’ appetite for fish caught in the UK and tourism. We are once again becoming known as the “sick man of Europe”; plague island filled with Covid-positive citizens, with no fuel, no fruit or vegetables on our shelves, no HGV drivers and, apparently also due to Brexit, no chemicals to treat our waste water.
Residents of Goring by Sea have renamed their town “Goring by Poo” and countless other residents of coastal areas have taken to Twitter and other social media sites to complain about the weakening of an amendment (45), brought by the Duke of Wellington, to the Environment Bill. Intended to compel our water companies not to discharge sewage into our waterways, it was supported by just 22 rebel Tory MPs who had been whipped to vote against it. Amendment 45 also would have made water companies “demonstrate improvements” to their water treatment systems which would have meant greater investment in the network’s infrastructure.
In 2012, a European court ruling said that water companies could only discharge sewage in this manner in “exceptional” circumstances. However, environmental activists say this should never happen, especially if water companies invest in storage tanks. The amendment would have forced companies to invest in ways to prevent this.
Our river ways are in decline – around 8/10 of England’s rivers are, according to the River Trust, suffering from “failing health”.
The government has been surprised by the weight of criticism levied at them for their stance, saying that it is “disingenuous and untrue” that they supported routine dumping of human waste into rivers and the sea. A thousand word blog post, written on the DEFRA website, said :we have every confidence that the provisions in this Bill will absolutely deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows.”
Many MPs were, however, disingenuous in their replies to constituents, accusing them of continuing to abuse them in the wake of the murder of Southend MP Sir David Amess. They pointed to criticism of their voting record and called it “social media abuse”, carefully sidestepping the rights of the voting public and their constituents to criticise their decisions.
Protecting shareholder profits
Stopping all overflows immediately would, the government say, cost up to £660 billion due to the sewage systems being outdated, originally built in the Victorian era. They also say that the Environment Bill is robust enough to tackle the issue, although it will not entirely prevent the practice. The staunchest critics of the government point to the rising incidences of discharges of effluent into waterways and campaigners say it’s now a routine action to protect shareholders’ profits. In September, the issue was compounded further when the government gave the green light to water companies to dump waste more often because of a shortage of the necessary treatment chemicals. The government’s own communications addressed sewage companies that were experiencing shortfalls in chemicals because of “the UK’s new relationships with the EU”.
Tory MP Craig Williams warned that if the practice was banned, it would result in “flooding in our streets and home with sewage instead, which would then end up in the river.”
A u-turn in the u-bend
This evening, there was an announcement that, since the vote last week, there has been a partial u-turn in the u-bend. Organisations will be legally compelled to demonstrate a reduction in the number of sewage overspills over the course of the next five years.
Tory MP Philip Dunne, who originally rebelled and did not support the weakening of the amendment, said last week “The water management plans are a good idea, but they do not have statutory force and could be changed.”
Today, as reported in the Guardian, he said
“I am confident that although it was just 22 of us last week, awareness of this issue has been raised. There were many who abstained, and many who did not understand the gravity of the issue who have been made aware by constituents and colleagues.
“I am not whipping this vote so I can’t give you certainty but I believe if this goes back to the Commons it will be very close, enough to worry the government.”Phllip Dunne
However, critics are still unhappy and feel that it won’t be enough to quieten the public outrage, despite the government’s reasoning and reticence to force water companies to make changes they suggest would be too expensive.
An unnamed minister told the Guardian
“So to have people like Lord Adonis imply that everything is currently fine and that we are coming along post-Brexit and legislating to allow crap to go into the rivers is not only wrong, it is a blatant lie – designed to whip people up into a frenzy of hate. But the government has been slow. And the move in the Commons will look like a concession when in fact we have been working on it for weeks.”
The row is yet another environmental embarrassment to the UK, acting as host for the COP 26 conference on October 31, as our motorways are blocked by environmental protestors hellbent on forcing the government to insulate our homes.