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The Sewage Briefing

March 28, 2022 10:00 AM
By Green Liberal Democrats

We've found that of all the problems facing us, many of our campaigners are finding the sewage crisis to be particularly resonant on the doorstep.

The rural equivalent of air quality in cities, 36% of UK voters said they would be less likely to vote for an MP who did not support a ban on raw sewage dumped in rivers, rising to 41% of those who voted Conservative in 2019.

In this Green Liberal Democrat Sewage Briefing, we'll discuss the problem we face, the solutions proposed by our party, and how we campaign on this issue to win seats and drive change.

The Problem:

Water companies made £2.8 billion of collective profits in 2020 and discharged raw sewage 400,000 times - for more than 3.1 million hours total.

Shockingly, these figures are low-end estimates.

They only encompass events self-reported by companies, and we are aware that not every incident is filed. For example, Southern Water were recently fined £90 million after they admitted 6,971 illegal discharges between 2010 and 2015.

While some releases may be partially treated, storm overflows are raw and diluted only by rainwater. As a result, they contain anything that goes down the drain, from human waste to household chemicals and plastics.

Also, following the impact on the UK's supply chains from Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic, the Government enabled companies to discharge sewage at any time if there are a lack of treatment chemicals.

Beyond just being unpleasant, sewage causes serious damage to waterway ecosystems, plant, animal, and human health.

43% of river water bodies were impacted in 2020. Only 14% of rivers in the UK are of 'Good Ecological Status' within the Water Framework Metric, and over half of England's rivers fail to pass cleanliness tests.

Sewage released into rivers contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. These stimulate the growth of algae such as phytoplankton in the water or mats known as biofilms in the sediments, which can lead to algal blooms.

Algal blooms block light needed for photosynthesis. Plants die, and are then eaten by bacteria which reduce oxygen in the water. Simultaneously, microorganisms decompose sewage and use oxygen from the water for aerobic respiration. Low levels of oxygen in water represents a significant threat to fish and insects.

In UK waters, burbot and sturgeon are already extinct, while salmon - the so-called King of Fish - has suffered significant declines since the 1960s, and the European eel remains critically endangered.

Toxic algae is also simulated by the nutrients from sewage dumping, producing chemicals that are dangerous to not only fish, but to humans or dogs that ingest the water.

Surfers Against Sewage found that raw material had been discharged 3,000 times into English and Welsh bathing water beaches in 2020, linked to 153 reported sicknesses, primarily gastroenteritis and infectious diarrhoea.

The Solution:

At Spring Conference 2022, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion supported by the Green Liberal Democrats, proposed by Tim Farron MP and summated by our Vice Chair of Campaigns Cllr Pippa Heylings.

The motion calls on the Government to:

1) Set meaningful targets and deadlines for water companies to end sewage discharges.

2) Introduce a Sewage Tax on water companies profits to fund the cleanup of waterways.

3) Reduce the number of licences given to water companies permitting them to discharge sewage into rivers.

4) Strengthen Ofwat's powers to monitor the annual financial plans and reports of the water companies in order to compel them to achieve a fair and transparent balance between consumer prices, shareholder dividend, staff remuneration and ongoing long-term investment in storm water infrastructure.

5) Add local environmental groups onto water companies' boards.

6) Work with local authorities to ensure water companies protect our rivers and seas by:

i) Water companies being required to invest upfront in sewerage infrastructure to reflect environmental objectives in Local Plans and planning applications.

ii) Identifying powers of local authorities under the statutory duty to promote wellbeing of the area and provide councils with the funding to meet this duty.

The Campaign:

P.S: If you know a fellow local campaigner who would find this briefing useful, feel free to share it with them and encourage them to join us for more guidance and resources throughout the year!