Game change or hot air?
In November 2021, the Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, was interviewed by Rachel Salvidge, Deputy Editor of the ENDS report. The conversation was about the failure of regulation of the water industry.
The article referenced WASP and especially the impact of Peter Hammond's work. It also revealed some very big statements made by Ms Pow. This was one of them:
“Well, they won't be self-monitoring anymore, we’ve dealt with that… we are absolutely cracking down,”
This could be game-changing if it is not just hot air.
The water industry has been allowed to monitor its own permit compliance and report its pollution incidents since 2009. Bear in mind this industry has been squeezed by Ofwat to keep bills low yet has still managed to extract around £72 Billion in exchange for apparently investing about £160 Billion across clean water and sewerage since privatisation in 1989. Something had to give if it was not to be bills or profit and of course, it was performance and the environment.
The incentive to not report failure and to play down the severity of pollution in such a risky set-up is massive but the wilfully ignorant approach of the Environment Agency appears to have been little more than blind faith in the highly unlikely, even as it became blatantly clear that there were obvious abuses.
As the Minister has made such a claim, we think it is vitally important to make sure that it results in action, not just a soundbite, so we have written to her for an update:
The source of the interview is the ENDS Report which is a highly respected specialist environmental publication full of relevant articles but it has a paywall or trial subscription.
However, with kind permission, we can reproduce some extracts from the Minister's interview article here.
Rebecca Pow on the great British sewage scandal
'Has any other minister spent so much of their political life mired in raw sewage? When Rebecca Pow joined DEFRA two years ago, it’s unlikely she would have imagined how large the nation’s effluent would loom in her portfolio.
But loom it has. The trickle of discontent over the water sector’s rampant and widespread practice of dumping untreated sewage into rivers and seas has grown into a flood of disgust thanks to the unrelenting graft of campaigners such as Surfers Against Sewage, Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, Salmon and Trout Conservation, the Rivers Trust, the Angling Trust and remarkable individuals such as musician-turned-campaigner Feargal Sharkey and the retired data expert Professor Peter Hammond (more of whom later). Like it or not, sewage is now on everyone’s lips.
Media exposure including Panorama, Rivercide, ITV Tonight and a relentless barrage of newspaper articles drew sewage pollution into the mainstream of public concern and the ridiculous pretence by the leadership of the Environment Agency that our rivers had never been in a better state at any time since the industrial revolution fell apart, although there are still efforts to move the goalposts and to redefine bad as good. Watch out for that as the pressure on the Agency increases.
Further on in the article:
Pow entered the DEFRA offices in September 2019, just as the poop had been launched onto its trajectory towards the proverbial fan. The Environment Bill was already making its slow journey through parliament, which in its first iterations contained no mention of water pollution at all.
Pow, with her responsibility for water, had to deal with legal challenges against DEFRA and the agency over sewage and fend off angry river campaigners and members of the public, miffed at the unpleasant surprises they were faced with when embarking on paddleboarding or wild swimming.
Then came Professor Peter Hammond, armed with algorithms, time and a righteous if understated fury. Working with Windrush Against Sewage Pollution campaigners, he calculated that most water companies were spilling sewage illegally. A lot. He worked out that Thames Water was likely only reporting 5% of the raw sewage dumps it was really making. Scale that up across the sector and the horror is hard to comprehend.
Then came the critical comment about self-monitoring. The monitoring of untreated outfalls cannot be separated from the monitoring of treated effluent as they are intrinsically linked:
The interview went on with Rachel Salvidge saying:
With what looks like the entire water sector underreporting the amount of raw sewage they dump into rivers and seas I wonder whether the environment minister's faith in self-monitoring and self-reporting has been shaken.
“Well, they won't be self-monitoring anymore, we’ve dealt with that… we are absolutely cracking down,” says Pow. “We're having all these plans going into place so there'll be transparency, the chain will be clear won’t it,” she says. “So nobody can hide behind anything.”
We wait with interest to see how Ms Pow will respond to our question. Has she finally got a grip or will it turn out that the profits of the industry still have more protection than our waters?