On 31st March, the government publicised its woefully slow and inadequate response to the sewage crisis and Witney MP, Robert Courts sent out a letter selling it to his constituents. His message is so misleading that eight environmental groups have written to him about it and previous Newsletters.
People need to know the truth to be able to make the right decisions so this is no time to pull the wool over people's eyes.
This blog content is WASP's and we do not presume to speak for other campaigners but here is our joint response.
The future of water quality, the environment, our health and wellbeing and that of future generations hangs in the balance right now. The so-called 'public consultation' by the government which started on 16th March (who knew?) - ends on 11th May - about a month left for people to make sense of a scandalous story and comment on it.
The latest message sent by Mr Courts to concerned constituents is reproduced here with details of his website in the interests of fairness and accuracy.
From: Robert Courts <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Clean Rivers Campaign Update - Consultation Launched on Plans to Tackle Storm Overflows & Transform Sewage System (Case Ref: RC25027)
Date: 31 March 2022 at 17:15:01 BST
To: REDACTED BY WASP.
I wanted to write to update you on today’s significant step forward in our campaign to tackle the use of storm sewage overflows.
As you will be aware, storm overflows are a feature of our Victorian sewerage infrastructure designed to act as a safety valve to release wastewater into rivers or the sea to prevent sewage from backing up into streets and homes during heavy rainfall events. This system has been in operation for over a century but, due to a growing population and heavier storms because of climate change, the frequency of discharges has increased and sadly they have become routine events across the country.
I am clear that this is unacceptable – and so are the people of West Oxfordshire. That is why I have been leading the campaign to tackle the use of storm overflows and ensure we protect our precious rivers.
I am therefore pleased that, for the first time, we have government that is committed to transforming our century-old sewerage system and is taking the strong action required to do so.
As you know, we recently passed the Environment Act, which puts in place more legal protections against water pollution than ever before. This places a range of new legal duties on water companies, including a duty to reduce harm from storm overflows.
Today, the Government has published plans to set clear and enforceable targets that the water industry must meet to significantly reduce storm overflows and ensure they are used only in exceptional circumstances.
Under the plans, water companies will face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the ecological harm any storm sewage discharges cause to the environment.
This ties in with the recently enforced Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat, the water regulator, which sets out government’s expectation that storm overflows should operate infrequently, and only in cases of unusually heavy rainfall. The Policy Statement empowers Ofwat to challenge water companies to meet this expectation – and indeed Ofwat is legally required to act in accordance with the Policy Statement.
A consultation has been launched on the plans set out today, which you can respond to here: https://tinyurl.com/268jebek.
The consultation will be open for six weeks and the responses received will inform the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan which, under the terms of the Environment Act, the Government has a duty to publish by September.
I do hope this information is encouraging and demonstrates that our campaign is succeeding, with the Government introducing the largest programme to tackle storm sewage discharges in history. Transforming an over century-old system will not happen overnight, but it is clear that the necessary action is being taken to ensure that water companies significantly reduce the use of storm overflows and end the environmental harm caused by sewage discharges.
With best wishes,
Robert Courts MP
Member of Parliament for Witney & West Oxfordshire
Tel: 01993 22 50 20
WASP REALITY CHECK
Very little of our infrastructure is Victorian, especially locally; most of it was built to deal with the development which took place after the Second World War. We do not have a 'century old system' - the innovations that led to sewage being treated were introduced in the mid 1800s but to blame a Victorian system for this scandal is like blaming the Romans for traffic chaos on the A40.
In Witney there are few, if any storm overflows that operate to avoid flooding streets and homes. Generally, many or most operate to protect processes at the sewage works and in reality to mask the consequences of underinvestment by the privatised water industry, now in its 33rd year.
The huge number of sewage dumping events would not be happening if the water industry had spent the required amount on repairing and increasing capacity to meet demand while extracting £72 Billion in profit from billpayers. Inept government regulation and the failure of the financial regulators to control profit hungry water companies allowed this to happen as populations increased.
We don't know what campaign Mr Courts claims to be leading but it is surprising that he does not fact check his material with established local campaigns which specialise in the investigation and analysis of this scandal despite previous challenges to his comments to the media. The Environmental Audit Committe Inquiry sent a team of MPs and Advisors to meet WASP last year,included our evidence in its report and identified WASP's Professor Hammond's analysis as superior to that of the Environment Agency.
Mr Courts talks about more legal protection than ever before and we will be interested to know what this means as the previous (still available) law which was perfectly adequate was deliberately rendered ineffective by government policy. This policy is still in force and only allows the Environment Agency to deal with a tiny fraction of criminal offences while the leadership of the Agency holds back the resources needed to deal with them. Government policy made pollution profitable and it continues to keep it that way although this could easily be changed.
The Environment Act had the potential to force the water industry to take all reasonable steps to end the dumping of untreated sewage apart from in exceptional circumstances - as was the law at the time. However, the government forced its MPs to vote that option out and left us with fuzzy requirements to make improvements or reduce harm (that is not properly measured nor understood) and that is what we now see presented as a step forward. Illegal pollution is being kept profitable and allowed to continue.
Mr Courts states this: Under the plans, water companies will face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the ecological harm any storm sewage discharges cause to the environment.
Always read the label.. What he failed to mention in this message was this, quoted from the government media release: By 2040, approximately 160,000 discharges, on average, will have been eliminated (40% of the total); and by 2050, approximately 320,000 discharges, on average, will have been eliminated (80% of the total).
By 2035, the environmental impacts of 3,000 storm overflows (75%) affecting our most important protected sites will have been eliminated. We note this appalling timescale is now added to Mr Courts Website.
This is what we are told is 'the largest programme to tackle storm sewage discharges in history.' We say to government - this is an emergency; please stop treating the public as fools.
We hope that Mr Courts will accept this criticism constructively and will start talking to campaign groups to avoid undermining their efforts to tell a rightly worried and horrified public the truth about what is really being done to them and will help to end sewage pollution, not perpetuate it.