Water companies should be held accountable for this almighty sewer mess

I don’t need to prove that my constituency is the most beautiful in the country, because this statement is self-evident. The Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales are two amazingly beautiful national parks.

But stunning views distract from the harsh reality. Our swamps, backwaters, rivers and lakes are clogged and polluted – by our own impurity.

United Utilities, a local water company, dumped wastewater into the Loon River in Sedburgh for 8,940 hours or 353 days in 2020. It was the longest discharge of wastewater in the country. But he had competition.

In the heart of the Lake District, sewage seeped into magnificent Derwent Water for 8,275 hours.


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On a national scale, the picture is even more disgraceful. In 2020, water utilities discharged raw sewage 400,000 times, for a total of 3.1 million hours.

The water companies have left our rivers in a terrible state. The injection of raw sewage into them caused incalculable damage. Only 14 percent are considered environmentally “good” and more than half of those failed purity tests.

Spring has come, summer is just around the corner. The UK’s waterways will soon be teeming with swimmers, divers and rowers. In my area, 80 percent of the working population work in the hospitality and tourism industry. This is the bread and butter of our society.

I think with horror of a time when families hesitate to visit the Lakes and Valleys because they are afraid of what is in the water. Let me be clear. We’re not there yet, but we’re on a dangerous trajectory.

Our local team is working incredibly hard to protect Lake Windermere from bathing water conditions. It is the most visited place in the UK outside of London and a precious piece of the landscape. We need government support.

Along with the human impact, there is also an environmental impact. Thousands of species call the waterways home. Maintaining the quality of our rivers, streams and lakes is critical to protecting biodiversity for centuries to come. The UK has already lost 90 percent of our wetlands in the last 100 years; we can’t afford to lose more.

A recent report from MPs to the Environmental Audit Committee reported that “the rivers in England are in disarray”. There are 42 major salmon rivers in England. Of the 42 populations, 39 are categorized as at risk or likely at risk.

And when one part of the complex, interconnected world of a river is damaged, the entire ecosystem is damaged; duckweeds and dragonflies, from otters to trout.

Parliament voted last Monday on my amendment to the Animal Welfare Bill. This would require the government to issue an annual report on the number of sentient animals killed or injured due to sewage discharges. But 286 Conservative MPs voted against, so the law never came into being.

It was another reminder that the government just doesn’t care about cleaning up our water. Ministers were yelled at and kicked to pass an amendment that would require water utilities to “gradually reduce” the amount of wastewater discharged from stormwater. But there are no goals in scope or time scale. Essentially, water companies can continue to operate.

This is not enough. We need to set really meaningful targets for the water companies, and we also need to give Ofwat the teeth to hold them accountable.

Water utilities should be held accountable. Yes, our sewer systems are outdated and do not meet their purpose. Yes, they are unable to cope. But it’s not a money issue. United Utilities made a profit of £602 million in 2020. Nationally, water companies received £2.8 billion.

That is why the Liberal Democrats are calling for a “sewage tax” on the companies responsible for this environmental atrocity. The 16% pre-tax levy will bring in £340m a year that can be used to clean up our rivers and lakes, start working to restore them and keep them the way they should be.

Rivers, lakes and coastlines have been here long before us. We must make sure that every generation can continue to enjoy them.

The public understands this – hundreds of voters have contacted me to express their outrage. It is time for the government to listen and act – to force the companies involved in this destruction to clean up their almighty mess.

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