'An absolute outrage' - Sewage vote angers local environmentalists

The storm drain gushing out what may have been sewage onto Sheringham beach after torrential rain. P

A storm drain gushing out what may have been sewage onto Sheringham beach after torrential rain in 2020. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

Environmental campaigners are outraged after several Norfolk MPs voted against placing a new duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers.

The vote took place on Wednesday evening last week and was on a House of Lords amendment to the government’s Environment Bill.

Section 141A of amendment 45 of the bill would have seen water companies forced to  “demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges” - but this section was successfully opposed by 265 Conservative MPs. 

The government has however committed to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions, with both publications required before 1 September 2022.

The bill will return to the Lords and then MPs again for further scrutiny. 

Maggie Wilcox, founder of the Wild Lives Matter group, said: “Pretty well every day we do a beach-clean here in Overstrand. 

Overstrand wildlife campaigner Maggie Wilcox in front of the netting and hedgerow.

Environmental campaigner Maggie Wilcox said she often finds sanitary products and other waste items on the beach at Overstrand. - Credit: Supplied by Maggie Wilcox

“Quite often we find some items on the beach which shouldn’t be there, like female sanitary products. 

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“The thought of this chemical cocktail going into the North Sea, it really is quite appalling. 

“We’re a holiday destination here - and I don’t think people would enjoy swimming and having something bob along beside them and it’s not a seal.”

Great Ryburgh-based environmental campaigner Jennifer Lonsdale said she was “really surprised” by the decision. 

Founding director of the Environmental Investigation Agency Jennifer Lonsdale PHOTO: Matthew Usher

Environmental campaigner Jennifer Lonsdale said she was "really surprised" by the vote. - Credit: Matthew Usher

Commenting in her capacity as a local resident, Ms Lonsdale said she hoped future work on the bill would “be done in a collaborative way, with the understanding that this problem has to be tackled, because we can’t afford to ruin our rivers.”

Speaking on BBC Radio Norfolk on Monday morning, Jason Borthwick, who runs Deepdale Farm in Burnham Deepdale said he was “so angry and disappointed” and that “proper investment” was needed for the nation’s sewage infrastructure. 

Jason Borthwick, owner of Deepdale Farm at Burnham Deepdale

Deepdale Farm owner Jason Borthwick said the decision was "an absolute outrage". - Credit: Brittany Woodman

“It’s just an absolute outrage, because if we don’t have a beautiful environment, the vast majority of Norfolk’s economy just implodes, because most of our economy is built around the visitor economy,” said Mr Borthwick. 

In a Facebook post, North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker wrote that the amendment was something “which in theory we all agree with but in practice our sewage systems work by allowing discharges in extreme rainfall to prevent flooding.

Duncan Baker, Conservative candidate in North Norfolk. Picture: SUPPLIED BY THE CANDIDATE

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker said the amendment as it stood was "just not feasible". - Credit: Archant

“To ban these completely would mean most of the sewage system in the country would have to be reinstalled and in some cases with gradients it would not be possible to get a sewage system in place without a discharge release so a legal ban would mean sewage would be discharged onto pavements, fields, parks etc instead.

“Initial assessments suggest a cost of more than £150 billion to £600 billion for a complete separation of sewerage systems, leading to potentially significant disruption for homes, businesses and infrastructure across the country. Clearly this is just not feasible.”

He added: “If we accepted the amendment as currently written, nearly all existing sewage systems in place would be outlawed overnight and so we will be debating this issue further so that we can ensure we protect our waters but also enable our current sewage system to legally operate.”

North West Norfolk MP James Wild similarly published a post on his website addressing some of the “inaccurate coverage” he had seen about the vote. 

James Wild MP

North West Norfolk MP James Wild said he would consider any further amendment on its own merits. - Credit: Richard Townshend Photography

He wrote: “While the aim is one that I support in principle the difficulty is that it came with no plan to deliver it and with no impact assessment.

“Of course, you could argue that a plan can be formulated afterwards. That may be reasonable if we are talking about a simple, inexpensive issue.

“However, eliminating storm overflows involves transforming a system that has been in operation since the Victorian era.”

He added: “It may well be that a further amendment returns from the House of Lords that is workable and addresses the flaws in the previous proposal and, if so, I will consider that on its merits.”

In Norfolk and Waveney, MPs voted to remove section 141A as follows:

Peter Aldous (Conservative - Waveney)
Duncan Baker (Conservative - North Norfolk)
Jerome Mayhew (Conservative - Broadland)
Chloe Smith (Conservative - Norwich North)
James Wild (Conservative - North West Norfolk)

Richard Bacon (Conservative - South Norfolk)
George Freeman (Conservative - Mid Norfolk)
Brandon Lewis (Conservative - Great Yarmouth)
Liz Truss (Conservative - South West Norfolk)

Clive Lewis (Labour - Norwich South)

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