Tory MPs run for cover from public rage over raw sewage scandal

"Sea Level" sewage spillages
“Sea Level” by Helen Forte

Last week, 268 MPs voted to allow raw sewage to be pumped into our rivers and seas, 29 of them from East Anglia. They did so arguably because they were more concerned to protect water companies’ profits than the natural environment, or the health and safety of their constituents.

The vote came on an amendment to the new Environment Bill, originally tabled in the Lords by the Duke of Wellington. The amendment would have placed a legal duty on water companies in England and Wales “to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage.” 

The amendment was voted down.

High costs versus big dividends

Cost is usually cited as a reason for not improving Britain’s crumbling Victorian sewage system, though estimates vary between £150 billion and £650 billion, depending on how keen the estimator is to shore up the privatization ideal and water companies’ shareholder dividends.

The problem has been exacerbated by a shortage of the chemicals used to treat sewage, as a result of Brexit.  And it may yet reach unexpected new levels of concern with the news that it is likely the UK will shortly begin importing raw sewage from the EU.  Not content with releasing British sewage into the water courses, the government is controversially to allow foreign sewage to be spread over our farms.

So now, EU members are able to get rid of their most toxic sewage by sending it here. It is scarcely surprising that this country is being referred to as the toilet of Europe.

It remains unclear quite why our own sewage isn’t good enough for British farmland, but it is only possible to pursue that investigation so far without its becoming unseemly.

Promised higher environmental standards have evaporated

The government had claimed that, once Brexit was done, the UK would have higher environmental standards – failing to point out that there was no reason whatever why those new standards could not have been implemented while we were still members of the EU. The rules only laid down minimum standards.

Predictably however, now the UK is no longer a member of the EU, the government has seen fit to begin dismantling that legislation, which had seen a near miraculous improvement in the water quality of our rivers and coasts over the past 40 years. After all, and in the face of the government’s promises, Jacob Rees-Mogg warned us all that after Brexit, Britain could slash environmental and safety standards “a very long way”.

But now it seems, people have woken up. Over the weekend there was a huge wave of anger among the public aimed at their MPs. On Sunday, alarmed Tory whips hurriedly prepared responses as their charges were deluged by voters’ fury on social media.

raw sewage in rivers
Raw sewage in rivers. Photo by Londonist

Tory MPs surprised by the backlash

The rage itself is not surprising, though seemingly Tory MPs didn’t see it coming. The surprise is that it doesn’t seem to have been caused by reporting in the media, since there was none. The rage was spontaneous, an uprising of despair and disbelief.

The failure of the mainstream media to cover what has become the most pressing issue of the day is a point East Anglia Bylines (EAB) will be taking up with newspaper and broadcasting editors over the coming weeks.

Our parliament votes to have us in some cases literally swimming in raw sewage, yet either the mainstream media didn’t think it important, or they were squeamish about making a fuss. These days, ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ has sadly become ‘all the news we dare to print’.

Anger over raw sewage dumping will continue

But it seems unlikely that the furore will die down, not least because the evidence will be only too obvious. Children will stop playing in the rivers, which will be littered with dead fish. What is left of our fishing industry won’t find ready markets for fish scooped out of sewage. Local coastal economies dependent on tourism will shrivel.

Already all over the region, local communities are expressing outrage. In villages across the Broads, like Horning, local online community pages are already furious. Villages such as Fornham in Suffolk are realizing it is in the place they call home that the raw sewage will pour into their stream. In nearby Bury St Edmunds, volunteers had literally been wading up to their waists over the weekend to clean the Lark and the Linnet, both valuable chalk streams. To what end now?

Over the coming weeks, EAB will be investigating constituency by constituency across the region. Therese Coffey, Jo Churchill, Chloe Smith, James Wild, Jerome Mayhew – all these MPs and many others have questions to answer. But however desperately they struggle to find one, there is no question to which the answer can ever be: “Empty raw sewage into our rivers and coastlines”.

Our Regional Bylines partners have also covered this story in their areas:

Central Bylines – Shit creek – Britain’s supply chain crisis is polluting our rivers
Kent Bylines – Polluted Water In Kent
Sussex Bylines – Toxic Shock series of articles
West Country Bylines – The MPs in our region (all Conservatives) who voted to ALLOW raw sewage dumping…and those who voted against
West England Bylines – Cotswolds Ecosystem in Danger – Part 2 – River Pollution
Yorkshire Bylines – The Yorkshire MPs who are happy to allow untreated sewage in Britain’s waters

Can you help us reach more readers?