Parliament had passed the new Environment Act. It has been long in the making: more than 1 000 days since our politicians set eyes on the first version. Like everything else, it got held up by the pandemic. But the pace quickened in the past few months as it went through second readings, third stage in the Lords, then Committee last week, and finally the third reading in the Commons on 9 November.
The national press has mostly focused on one story: Wellington and stopping sewage flows into English rivers. No, not wellies for wet walking, but Wellington as in the Duke of Wellington. From the Lords, he proposed Amendment 45b to compel water companies “to take all reasonable steps to ensure sewage is not discharged.”
The Tory majority in the Commons rejected this, and the wording now requires “water companies to progressively reduce the impacts of sewage pollution from storm overflows.”
Explain the difference
A hair-splitting difference in meaning? That is exactly what our legislators have to spend many hours doing. There is a difference between “reasonable steps” and “progressively reduce” which would reflect in infrastructure investment plans. There is a difference between a focus on sewage and a focus on storm overflows.
What the public does not well understand, is that it is the storm overflows that cause the problem. Because rain-off runs through the same drainage pipes as “foul water” from our loos.
Counting the cost
To fix this is enormously costly, as it means either re-designing all drainage in old pre-1970 streets (unacceptable to residents) or making better use of nature-based drainage (estimate £20 – 30bn) or building huge concrete storage tanks at the Water Treatment locations to ensure that all storm water can be contained and gradually filtered (cost estimated at £13 – 20bn – see Cadbury in House of Commons debate).
Check the facts!
My criticism of most of the recent press coverage is that they have not checked up on what the water companies are currently doing about this. When I contacted the Press office of Southern Water, they gave me lots of facts about storm overflows. And the speed with which heavy rains can overwhelm the system in many places.
What they are trying to do is improve the infrastructure in the places where it is most urgent. In the Isle of Wight, for instance, they spent more than £6m digging out tunnels in a hill so that storm water could be stored there rather than spoiling a tourist beach. This is what “progressively reduce” would mean.
What are the alternatives?
None of the other political demands:
- renationalising the companies (Labour);
- taxing the companies more heavily (Libdem);
- start a water customers’ strike (Whitstable residents)
would serve the prime need of getting enough money to pay for the infrastructure to solve the storm-water problem. There are really only three sources of this money: the UK Government via taxation; customers billing, or private investment via the companies.
I do not think the public is ready for increases in the first two to cover this cost. One estimate is that it would add £1 000 pa to each householder’s water bill! So that leaves the third option – let the water companies progressively solve it, closely monitored by the Environment Agency and Ofwat who set the prices. Undoubtedly this means some increase in bills: mine from South East Water has just increased by 25%.
Could the water company bosses pay?
There is also some finger pointing at the high salaries of Water Company bosses, helpfully listed in Moneyweek. But even though it looks as if they could be slashed, the annual amount gained would barely even cover that Isle of Wight tunnelling.
In the recent Commons debate, Tim Farron (LibDem) asked what “progressively reduce” means in terms of volumes and timescale. To some extent the government’s own final amendments on the storm overflow responds to this by requiring a plan. This would include actions before September 2022, and reporting to Parliament within three years. They also require water companies to publish the dates and times of storm overflows, both upstream and downstream.
This law is not only about water
Its intention is also to:
- Transform our environmental governance [as] we leave the EU, by
- putting environmental principles into law;
- introducing legally binding targets; and
- establishing a new Office for Environmental Protection.
- Increase local powers to tackle sources of air pollution.
- Protect nature and improve biodiversity by working with developers.
- Extend producer responsibility by
- ensuring a consistent approach to recycling,
- introducing deposit return schemes, and
- introducing charges for specified single use plastic items.
- Secure long-term, resilient water and wastewater services, including through powers to direct water companies to work together to meet current and future demand.
To sum up
There is a summary of the whole process of this Bill at: https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9345/CBP-9345.pdf
It is interesting to follow the debates as this legislation went through the three stages in each house, and ping-pong between them before the third readings. In the week before the final presentation to Parliament there were two sessions of a special Environment Committee, consisting of the majority of about ten Tory MPs and three from Labour.
They considered all amendments still outstanding from the Lords. They also had the submissions from about 42 outside bodies (including businesses like Waitrose, and various Nature charities).
The opposition pressed the arguments for the amendments and the Under-Secretary for the Environment responded with the government view. Where any amendment was pushed to a vote, the Tory majority outvoted the opposition. So what finally came to the House the following week was the government view of the Lords’ amendments and the proposal to reject them, one by one.
The only amendment to generate a lot of publicity was the one on sewage, and the government was forced to issue a public notice about that.
Disappointment among environmentalists
From the side of environmental groups, some regret has been expressed that what is now passing into law does not go far enough on air quality targets, on soil health and the independence of the new Office of Environmental Protection. The opposition and the Lords pushed hard on this last one to get assurance that the process would be based on merit not on patronage. But there is still the suspicion that too much depends on the judgement and politics of the Secretary of State for the Environment.
As one critic put it: the process put in place by a new law needs to be “malevolent-proof” with the wording so tight that the whims of future politicians cannot easily corrupt the process. As Daniel Zeichner pointed out in the Committee, this Environmental law is replacing the system of EU law on the environment on which we have depended in past decades.
In response to questions about environmental impact targets, the government view was that the plan of 2018 was the first of these, and another review is planned for 2023.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment insisted that the new law, when combined with the new planning laws, will enable local authorities to move forward with carbon-neutral targets. We shall see.
Eternal vigilance is the price
As always in a democracy, it depends on citizen vigilance. So we must now start to look at the opportunities and obligations under these new laws for local government to combat climate change. Which towns in Kent now have plans in place? Please send in your comments on these to KBL.