The Norfolk MP for Broadland, Jerome Mayhew, is one of those in the front line in the ongoing public outrage regarding the discharge of raw sewage into our rivers.
Since his election, Mayhew’s parliamentary voting record does little to suggest he is an independent minded MP who would always put his constituents’ interests before those of his party. Not unless, as he may well do, he sees his instructions from the party whips as being by coincidence an exact reflection of the views of the voters of Broadland.
Government and Ofwat failures
As background, both the government and Ofwat, the regulatory body, stand accused of failing to enforce the law to stop water companies from routinely discharging sewage into rivers. The companies are claimed to have continually failed to meet the duties imposed on them by law, and neither the environment secretary, George Eustice, nor Ofwat, has seen fit to enforce those legal constraints.
Duties to “effectually drain sewers” and “effectually deal with sewage” were imposed on the water companies in 1989, when the industry was privatized. Yet in 2020, raw sewage was discharged into English rivers 400,000 times.
In Norfolk, Environment Agency figures show sewage was pumped into Norfolk’s rivers, Broads and coastline 10 times every day. During 2020, sewage in general – also involving field run-offs and rainwater as well as human waste – was pumped into the waterways for 33,000 hours.
Mayhew’s boilerplate letter
Mayhew has responded to very public and furious concerns among his voters with a letter, no doubt prompted if not entirely written by the whips, explaining his and the government’s position. (Once again by happy coincidence, what he sees as right for his constituents, his own view and that of the government, are as one.)
The letter to Mayhew’s constituents is long, suspiciously so. Obfuscation is always easier when it can be hidden amid a torrent of verbiage. There is no telling how much of it was actually cut and pasted from a memo circulated by the Tory whips, though the pomposity of the letter suggests Mayhew probably added a bit of his own.
In it, Mayhew appears to blame the mess on ‘bureaucratic planners’ back in the 1950s, when the water boards were state owned. He goes on to admit however that, at the time, this made sense.
(Mayhew is clearly a great admirer of the free market. From his contributions to the Commons Environment Committee, for example, he appears to believe the solution to the world’s carbon emissions is to leave it all to the free market. That will come as a surprise to those who feel we are in this mess precisely because that’s what we have been doing.)
His letter says that the government and the water companies “must set out the actions needed to eliminate storm overflow with the costs and benefits of those actions.” He goes on to say:
“Last week I voted to make these legal duties as part of the Environment Bill. We need clear information on the feasibility and cost of elimination before we impose a legal requirement on water bill payers to fund the work.
Although the work will be done by the water companies, it will be all of us paying for it, and I want to know the scale of these charges and how they can be managed over time, before passing the law that orders the work.”
Most observers were under the impression that there were already legal duties on the water companies to deal with sewage, only they just weren’t being enforced. It is also noticeable that Mayhew does not see shareholders in the water companies as having any part to play in paying for the radical improvements necessary. They have so far received £57 billion in dividends since 1991.
Mayhew mauled on social media
The letter was clearly deemed necessary given the degree of anger by voters, and we can be sure that almost every MP dutifully sent out something similar to pacify the punters. But a trawl through the local Facebook and other social media pages does not make for comforting reading for Mayhew. Being ‘gutless’, ‘squirming around the issue’, being a ‘bell end’ and having no shame are among the more printable comments. (From Coltishall, Great Plumstead, Sprowston and Spixworth respectively.)
Comments from Tunstead, Swanton Morely and Salhouse see money as being the sole motivation behind the government’s position, and claim Mayhew has no concern for his constituents.
More outrageous though is the claim (from Little Plumstead) that Mayhew isn’t even local; and worse, Mayhew is accused of not knowing the difference between Wroxham and Hoveton. (They straddle the Bure and share a bridge, and this kind of mistake could mean the end of a political career.)
The anger over sewage is still as raw as the sewage itself, and it seems unlikely that Mayhew’s letter will calm many troubled breasts. For all his verbose excuses, the problem is immediate and the sewage is gushing into a river near you right now. Since the government has no idea what to do about it, we must assume this may not be the last on this subject we will hear from the MP for Broadland.