Witney MP Replies.
On 5th August I wrote to Witney MP Robert Courts (previous WASP blog) to follow up on a question I had asked him on BBC Radio Oxfordshire. I pointed out that his description of when untreated sewage was released was misleading as he failed to mention critically important information about the extensive dumping of sewage outside of heavy rainfall and in illegal circumstances. He may not have left that out deliberately but this information has been buried for years and I am sure that Mr Courts understands that its exposure to a wider public audience is the key to driving an end to pollution.
You can see his reply below and the commentary I have given in response.
The question I asked on the radio and again in the letter was this:
'Should the government step in to force the water industry to ensure it has capacity before more new housing is added or should the environment and public health and wellbeing continue to be compromised?'
The words and honest feedback that accompany the letter are delivered with constructive intent and the interview is still available on this link
www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p09nkcgf at 3:24:30 on the timer.
The radio interview was to a public audience so dealing with it as a private message to the MP's office would not be effective, transparent nor appropriate.
We are now in the middle of an environmental emergency as large numbers of new houses are being connected to an already failing sewage system at Witney where the sewage works dumped untreated sewage on 97 occasions for an appallingly high total of 1563 hours in 2020, up from 76 times for 1395 hours in 2019. Sewage fungus persisted throughout 1.6km of the Colwell Brook on its way to the Windrush at the popular Duck lake for months during the past two winters, right next to the footpath in a key recreational area. The risks to health are obvious and are ignored by Thames Water and Environment Agency.
New housing will add around 30 tonnes of sewage per day per 100 houses so during overspilling situations that will all be going untreated into the river. The same situation is playing out at many other places across the constituency, county and country.
If calling out the need for the public to be told the truth and for a clear answer about whether the government should prevent this crisis from getting worse is combative, then that is because we do indeed need to fight and call on our MP to fight harder to bring an end to entirely predictable and avoidable pollution. Asking difficult questions and highlighting the facts should not be seen as an attack on anything except a failed system.
If our elected representatives and national regulatory bodies are not going to protect our environment from the effects of development arriving ahead of infrastructure, and they haven't, then it falls to the community and groups like WASP and many others to expose and tackle it, hopefully with the help of our MPs and our councils which are becoming increasingly engaged.
The system is undeniably broken and we know that Defra made this unusually candid comment in a press release in January: ‘water infrastructure has not kept pace with development growth over decades’ The water industry was supposed to be regulated by the government to make sure that it did - otherwise what was the point of privatisation?
To stand by and watch this get even worse would be to betray not only ourselves but also future generations who may never know what clean rivers are, and I am sure that Mr Courts would agree.
The letter continues
We appreciate that with a broader remit than sewage pollution Mr Courts may not be aware of the level of detail that WASP has gone into so let's look at the 'truly transformative measures that have been set out by Defra' and rather than read my account of how Defra Policy has made pollution profitable by restricting enforcement to meaningless levels, let's look at the expose' conducted by Solicitor Guy Linley-Adams of the Salmon and Trout Conservation Trust - from their website:
Guy Linley-Adams, Solicitor to S&TC and author of the report said:
“The system is broken. Over recent years, our environmental regulator has been made subject to all manner of deregulatory initiatives and business-friendly codes, all designed to place economic growth above the environment. To make matters worse, Government has starved the Agency of funds, with its dwindling staff confined to barracks and shackled to their desks.
The watchdog has been beaten, chained up and muzzled”.
This compelling and well-researched report is available via this link for those who like to dig deep into the facts. Cut and paste it into your browser.
Defra's claims about steps forward in requiring the water industry to report their pollution need to be looked at in context. Water companies were required to proactively make such information electronically available by legislation introduced in 2004 and they and the Environment Agency have been allowed to ignore it.
Mr Courts' letter has indeed been helpful in highlighting the challenges that he faces and this comment from it exposes the charade that has been the industry's and the regulators' response to infrastructure vs increasing demand and the reason why we are in a sorry state all across the country.
'We need to keep the pressure on Thames Water to invest in the vital infrastructure upgrades our area needs and I will not stop calling them out until these are delivered.'
What kind of ludicrous system leaves the local MP to have to be in a position to a) know when a sewage works is not performing properly and b) to have to call upon a water company over which he has no authority to do something which is already too late by that point?
On the same theme:'It is of course for Thames Water to say whether their system can cope prior to any new development being approved. If they say their system can cope then it needs to – and we need to hold them to that.' Again, how on earth is he or are we expected to do that?
Mr Courts knows from the published data that Thames Water cannot cope and he hasn't been able to hold them to it and nor have 'we' because we have no control over Thames Water. WASP achieves what it does (and we may make be able to improve the Witney problem slightly) by publicly exposing issues that can influence the decisions made by a privately owned monopoly staffed by people who generally want to do a good job with starkly limited resources.
Words like; 'Thames Water must ensure that the system is able to cope with increased demand. I will hold Thames Water’s feet to the fire on this important matter' and 'we need to hold them to that' are well-meaning but of no consequence when the regulators are facilitating increasing levels of pollution It is the regulators and the people who direct them that need to be challenged at least as much as the industry.
That means challenging departments and Ministers of the government he is part of and we understand the dilemma he faces, but he is also Witney's MP and will surely want to serve his constituents.
We hope this information will help him to make his own informed decisions more effectively and, as he knows, we are always available to meet and discuss the issues and WASP's current work. A lot has happened since he last spoke to us.
At this late stage, the only real way to save many places from increased and potentially devastating pollution would be to force a link between house occupancy and water industry upgrades to ensure that adequate assets are in place before use. That would focus some minds and force some action but would adversely affect the developers who would possibly find a way to force the industry and government to shape up.
Proper funding and resourcing of the enforcement arm of the Environment Agency and the freedom to stop pollution being the profitable option would generate a massive infrastructure overhaul which could be part of the trumpeted 'green recovery' but holding off additional housing until it is ready would inconvenience the developers.
It did not have to be like this but that is not the fault of the people who already live in the affected towns and villages nor those who are moving in, expecting and paying for their sewage to be treated properly, not dumped in a river when it becomes inconvenient.