MP Jeremy Wright has defended backing a government proposal campaigners say does not go far enough to save rivers from raw sewage.
It comes amid claims there were more than 1,000 raw sewage spillages in the MP’s own Kenilworth and Southam constituency last year.
An Environment Bill aiming to crack down on raw sewage being disposed of in Britain’s waterways was debated in Parliament. Water companies are currently permitted to do this after heavy rain to prevent flooding and sewage backing up into streets and homes.
The new proposal legally requires water firms to make a ‘progressive reduction’ in its disposal of sewage into waterways.
But an amendment from the the House of Lords called for a new legal duty on companies to ‘take all reasonable steps’ to prevent discharges – a version welcomed by many but one which MPs argued would cost billions of pounds to implement.
Mr Wright said: “I have not voted to allow water companies to pump sewage into our rivers. I voted in favour of a package of measures to reduce harms from storm overflows.
“The amendment from the House of Lords, some have asked me to support, would have required work estimated to cost between £150bn and £600bn, a cost which would have a significant impact on water bills and which is simply not realistic.
“That is why I voted for a different amendment when the Bill returned to the House of Commons, which places a new legal duty on water companies to reduce adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.
“It makes it clear that ‘adverse impacts’ include the effect on public health, which is new and important. It also enables those duties to be enforced, both by the industry regulator Ofwat under the Water Industry Act 1991 and by the Office for Environmental Protection which the Environment Bill will create.”
But others in the constituency disagreed.
Kenilworth Green councillor John Dearing argued: “You don’t have to be a Green to be appalled by the idea of raw sewage discharging into our local rivers.
“According to the Rivers Trust there were about 1,000 spillages of raw sewage in the Kenilworth and Southam constituency in 2020, taking place over more than 10,000 hours in the year.
“So why did Mr Wright vote against placing a legal duty on water companies not to pump waste into rivers? One can only guess that it’s because he believes the water authorities can sort themselves out. This, of course, is an old idea which increasingly doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”
“One study suggests, since 1991, the English water authorities have borrowed money, not to invest in new drainage systems and sewage works, but to pay dividends to shareholders – a total of £57billion.
“In Scotland, public ownership of water means a much greater proportion of household bills is invested in new infrastructure. It’s time England followed suit and brought the management of water back into public ownership for the common good.”