The Government has climbed down over refusing to implement legal controls on water companies to prevent them from dumping raw sewage into rivers and seas following a voter backlash.
Labour has accused ministers of conducting a U-turn in the face of public anger after Conservative MPs were last week whipped to vote down an amendment to the Environment Bill that would have placed legal obligations on water companies to stop polluting England’s waterways during heavy rainfall.
But, despite ordering MPs to defeat the proposal, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Tuesday said the bill would be “further strengthened” as it looks to put in place a “duty enshrined in law” to ensure water companies “secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows”.
The department said the amendment that would be brought forward in the Commons during the next stage of the Bill would be “very similar to amendment 45”, which peers were debating in the House of Lords on Tuesday – a vote the Government lost, as had been widely expected.
We’ve been very clear that we want to see a reduction in these storm overflows over the next five-year period of the water pricing plan
Environment Secretary George Eustice
The Lords backed, by a majority of 153, a move to place a new legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent sewage discharges, a result that allows the Environment Bill to be sent back to the Commons where the Government will table its own amendment.
Defra’s climbdown comes only hours after Downing Street had defended the decision to whip against last week’s amendment.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was “not right to sign a blank cheque on behalf of customers” after the Government put the cost of delivering on the terms of the Commons amendment at more than £150 billion.
But Environment Secretary George Eustice has admitted that the Government’s proposed change to the Environment Bill will still result in rising household water bills.
In comments to broadcasters, Mr Eustice signalled that the water sector would have five years to show progress on the matter, but that bills would have to increase to fund infrastructure improvements.
The cabinet minister said: “We’ve been very clear that we want to see a reduction in these storm overflows over the next five-year period of the water pricing plan.
“That will need to be funded and will lead to some increases in water bills to fund that.”
Sewage can be pumped out of the sewerage system and into rivers through combined sewer overflows – otherwise known as a storm overflow or release valve. The overflows are designed to release excess water following heavy rain or a storm to stop sewage backing up into homes.
To stop this happening, water companies are allowed to release the rainwater and a smaller amount of untreated sewage, into the country’s waterways.
The Environment Agency has reported that, in the last year, raw sewage was discharged into coastal waters and rivers in England more than 400,000 times, which Defra has branded “unacceptable”.
Having spent the past few days defending their position on daily discharges of raw sewage in rivers, this screeching U-turn will do little to convince the public that the health of our rivers, rather than the health of Conservative polling, is at the forefront of ministers’ minds pic.twitter.com/YasdHbr24t
— Luke Pollard MP (@LukePollard) October 26, 2021
Mr Eustice told reporters there would be a feasibility study into eradicating the overflows entirely – a move he said could cost between £150 billion and £600 billion – but that work could be done before then to reduce the country’s “reliance on them” over the next few years.
In a statement published separately, he said Defra’s announcement would see its strategy to the watchdog Ofwat about “progressively reducing discharge of sewage from storm overflows” put “on a statutory footing”.
Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Luke Pollard, said Defra had been forced into the change due to “public outcry” rather than out of care for the environment.
“It should not have taken a public outcry for this Government to take the scandal of raw sewage being discharged into our rivers seriously,” he said.
“Having spent the past few days defending their position, this screeching U-turn will do little to convince the public that the health of our rivers, rather than the health of Conservative polling, is at the forefront of ministers’ minds.
“The Government still has no clear plan and no grip on the issue of raw sewage being pumped into our seas and rivers,” he added.
The Liberal Democrat spokesperson for rural affairs, Tim Farron, said Tory MPs “owe their constituents an apology” after defending the decision to block the original amendment.