It is really disappointing to see the scale of misrepresentation and fake news that has been circulating online and in the media since the Commons voted on the Lords’ amendments. Accusations that we have somehow voted to pump sewage into streams and rivers are entirely untrue to the point of absurdity. What possible reason would any MP from any political party have for voting for this?
The discussion between MPs and Peers is not about whether or not we should continue to allow storm overflows to be used as they are now, everyone agrees we shouldn’t. It is about how legislation to reduce their use to emergency situations only can be effective and also fair.
Making law is not a static process. Almost every bill is amended and improved along the way. Even when amendments are not accepted, discussions go on behind the scenes about whether sensible changes to bills can be incorporated in a way which keeps the integrity of the legislation, ensuring it is practical, enforceable and not likely to be challenged in the courts.
The specific wording of a bill really does matter, good intentions do not necessarily make good law.
With this in mind, I would like to start by giving you the facts of what was voted on and why, and then explain what the Government is doing in its place.
In simple terms, we voted to remove part of an amendment made in the House of Lords by the Duke of Wellington, not the whole thing as has been reported.
Most of the content in Lords’ Amendment 45 was in fact content taken from the Government’s own Amendments on storm overflows.
The only part that was different – Section 141A - was the addition of ‘a new duty on sewerage undertakers in England and Wales to ‘demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage’.
During discussions, the Government made clear to the Lords that they had a better and more comprehensive plan to deal with the issue. The Duke did not accept this and so pushed his amendment into the bill.
Quite reasonably, the Government sought to remove this and instead proceed with their own, more comprehensive, solution.
In the debate on the amendment, I set-out my concerns with the Duke’s plan.
Firstly, in my view, this Amendment would only targets water companies. Water companies obviously have an important role to play, but storm overflows, caused by too much surface water entering the foul drainage system, are the responsibility of a much wider group of stakeholders, including housing developers, highways constructors and landowners.
As Mark Lloyd, the Chief Executive of the Rivers Trust, whom I quoted in the debate, has said:
“Delivering a plan will require contributions from the whole of society, in particular landowners, housing developers, highway constructors and homeowners, to divert clean water away from sewers…”
In many parts of Rushcliffe, housing development has been one of the key reasons behind increased flooding in recent years. Highways construction has also been an issue. For example, in Cropwell Butler, flooding is caused by drainage issues on the A46.
I think it’s important that everyone who contributes to the problem of storm overflows takes responsibility for reducing them and the pollution they cause. Allowing other companies and agencies who contribute to the problem to continue to do so and demanding that water companies alone fix the consequences is not, in my view, the best way to approach the problem. Nor is it fair to water company customers who would inevitably pick up the cost.
The second issue we have to consider carefully is that of cost. At the moment, official estimates put the cost of reducing storm overflows anywhere between £150 billion and £600 billion in capital investment costs to do this. That is an unknown cost variance of £450 billion, more than the cost of the Government’s entire Covid support. We need to make sure that any new duties put onto water companies are done in a way that is fair to their customers and will not result in astronomical bills.
Most crucially, we need to ensure integration of this new duty with other legislation, including new measures in the Environment Bill, and existing duties in the Water Industry Act 1991. The Duke’s amendment also did not contain a workable enforcement mechanism for any new duty.
These are the reasons why the amendment was voted down last week; in simple terms, it just would not have delivered.
The Duke of Wellington has now submitted a new amendment which is just as problematic for the same reasons. The Government will once again seek to remove this from the bill when it returns from the Lords.
The additional amendments being submitted in the Lords also gave the Government the opportunity to bring forward their more comprehensive plan.
This will further strengthen the Environment Bill by placing a new duty directly on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impacts of storm overflow discharges and provide for enforcement of the duty by the Secretary of State or Ofwat where applicable.
This means that not only will the progressive reduction now be included in the bill but, crucially, enforcement will now be in place as well. This moves into legislation the position already set out by the Government in the draft Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat that water companies must take steps to “significantly reduce the frequency and volume of storm overflows”.
When Ofwat and the Environment Agency set out the process for the next Price Review, they will include this in their requirements for companies preparing their business plans. This will give certainty about the costs as well.
I am really pleased that the Government has moved this solution into the bill. It tackles the uncertainty about costs which I spoke about in the House and is an important step towards ensuring that everyone (starting with water companies) takes responsibility for our rivers and waterways.
I will be delighted to support the Government amendment.
Finally, away from this amendment, I would like to just give a bit more detail about the measures in the bill to protect our waterways. These include:
- A new duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
- A new duty on water companies to publish near real time information (within 1 hour) of the commencement of an overflow, its location and when it ceases.
- A new duty on water companies to continuously monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow and of sewage disposal works.
- A new duty on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans.
- A new duty on Government to produce a plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows next year and to report to parliament on that plan.
More widely, the Government is also taking action on this issue outside the Bill. Between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £7.1bn on environmental improvements in England. Of this, £3.1 billion will be invested in in storm overflow improvements.
In Rushcliffe, I continue to meet with Severn Trent Water to discuss follow-up actions from my 2020 Flood Report, including making upgrades to their pumping station at East Leake, after homes and businesses were flooded during the 2019/20 winter floods.
Having seen first-hand the devastation caused to people’s homes and businesses in the flooding of 2019/20, I stand firmly behind the Environment Bill and will continue to fight Rushcliffe’s corner in future debates on this issue.
I hope this is of some reassurance. Please do come back to me if anything isn’t clear or if you have any further questions.