UK MPs published ‘misinformation’ on costs of sewage clean

Government claims that the reduction of raw sewage being discharged into rivers and seas by water companies would cost up to £660bn are misleading and part of a misinformation campaign according to Carve.

Conservative MPs released the figures as part of explanations to constituents as to why they voted to allow raw sewage to continue to be pumped into rivers and seas.

According to Carve, MPs said it would be irresponsible for any government to make the discharges illegal while remedy would cost £150bn and £650bn to transform the entire sewage system. All blamed antiquated systems despite the industry being privatised since 1990.

However leaked documents from the ‘storm overflows taskforce’ ( Environment Agency, the water industry and Ofwat) which is yet to be published detail a range of lower-cost options for dealing with the worst and most damaging sewage discharges range from £3.9bn to £62.7bn, with an impact on average water bills of between £19 and £58 a year. Well within industry reach.

Sources say the figure of £660bn appears nowhere in the report.

Hugo Tagholm of the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage said putting a figure of £660bn into the public domain was misinformation designed to scare the public.

“The figures are somewhere in the region of between £3.7bn and £62.bn to deal with the worst of the sewage pollution. This is well within the profits and dividends of these companies and if it were to be passed on to the bill-payer, it could be done at an affordable level.”

Christine Colvin, from the Rivers Trust also dismissed the claim that the tackling problem required the complete separation of the sewerage systems.

“Nobody is proposing digging up our entire sewerage network and starting from scratch.

“We know that nature based solutions are more difficult to cost, but in some places can be cheaper. They also bring multiple benefits – they help nature’s recovery, can provide new green and blue spaces and take up rather than emit carbon.”

A wide range of coastal MPs used the misleading figures and claims of digging up the infrastructure in statements to their constituents while ignoring the other lower cost analysis, says Carve.

But after years of downplaying calls to stop the scandal of raw sewage being dumped in the UK’s waterways, the government was forced into an embarrassing U-turn as drone footage showing effluent pouring into the sea attracted wall-to-wall media coverage.

Conservative MPs from coastal constituencies found themselves bombarded with letters and emails calling for an end to sewage releases into rivers and seas. On social media, images of poo-stained people emerging from British seas were trending.

The defeat of the sewage amendment prompted an outcry from unlikely but powerful allies; both left- and right-wing media, environmental activists, NGOs, the former Undertones frontman, Feargal Sharkey – whose voice was heard across the airwaves – and in even the bible of the landowning classes, Country Life.

After ping pong debates between the House of Commons and the Lords, the government finally bowed to pressure and agreed that water companies must be forced by law to cut raw sewage discharges.

Martin Salter, a veteran campaigner for clean rivers told The Guardian that he believes the shift has come largely through public pressure.

“During lockdown people rediscovered the British countryside in their droves. Two years ago hardly anyone was wild swimming, now in November I have groups swimming past me on the River Thames regularly.

“And people are getting sick and people are getting more outraged than they might otherwise have done because this is directly affecting them.”

It was anglers who first approached the Tory MP who has done more to turn the government round in Westminster than anyone else. Philip Dunne, the chair of the environmental audit committee, first suggested changing the law to force water companies to stop discharging raw sewage in a private member’s bill last year.

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