Harrogate MP defends his vote on sewage in rivers in letter to constituents

Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones has written to constituents about the sewage controversy which has seen Tory MPs forced to defend voting for the Environment Bill.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 28th October 2021, 11:44 am
Updated Thursday, 28th October 2021, 11:48 am
Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones has written to constituents about the sewage controversy which has seen Tory MPs forced to defend voting for the Environment Bill.
Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones has written to constituents about the sewage controversy which has seen Tory MPs forced to defend voting for the Environment Bill.

Locally, as many as 100 residents have got in touch with Mr Jones to express concern after a House of Lords' amendment to place legal duties on companies to reduce discharges into rivers was rejected in the House of Commons by 265 votes to 202.

Peers had tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill that would have forced water companies to demonstrate progressive reductions in discharges of untreated sewage and required them to "take all reasonable steps" to avoid using combined sewer overflows.

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The outcry after the amendment was defeated by the votes of Tory MPs, including that of Mr Jones, saw former singer Fergal Sharkey, who now campaigns to clean up the nation's waterways, claim "every single river" in England was polluted and "a major cause is the water industry dumping sewage".

In a letter sent to his constituents yesterday, Wednesday, the Harrogate and Knaresborough MP explained in detail why he had supported the Government on the controversial issue.

Mr Jones's main points were:

His local record showed he had worked with local councillors over pollution in the River Nidd, taken up the issue of discharges in several locations in our area and raised with the chief executive of Yorkshire Water storm overflows in Staveley.

The situation with sewage was more complicated than has been portrayed in the news this week.

Britain's sewage problems have not begun under this Government; sewage has been released into rivers since Victorian times

To totally eliminate combined sewers means 200,000km of roadworks and the bill running into hundreds of billions of pounds causing water bills to go up by thousands of pounds for every household.

The Lords amendment failed to address that problem.

He fully supported the Government's new amendment following the outcry which would strengthen the legislation, placing a new duty on water companies that reduces, over time, the impact of storm overflow discharges and provides for enforcement too.

What Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones said in his letter in full

There are many elements in the bill which improve water quality and I voted for them but I voted against this one amendment. You were concerned that this meant that I had voted against restrictions on the discharge of sewage into rivers.

In fact I agree with the principle of the amendment. It is admirable and there cannot be anyone who wants pollution of waterways. The question is how we make progress rather than whether we should. That is where the amendment was poorly planned and drafted and the reason I did not support it.

I have received some correspondence that suggests the UK, following the rejection of the Lords amendment, will now be starting to release sewage into rivers. In fact, sewage has been released into rivers since Victorian times and before due to the way in which the sewer system was constructed where clean rainwater and foul water from toilets travel down the same pipes to the sewage works.

In times of the heaviest rain the system may not be able to handle the volume of water so to prevent the sewage backing up and flooding into homes or on to roads the overspill is released into rivers and the sea. I agree this is happening too frequently and with climate change causing more severe weather events it could worsen.

Modern houses are built with different systems but replacing the sewage systems for older properties would be expensive – some estimate this could be as much as £650 billion. To put this in context, that is more than was spent on the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is the same amount of cash we spend on our NHS over five full years. This would need to be paid for through taxation, cuts to public services or sky-high water bill hikes.

It would also mean an immense amount of work on the public highway and on to private property. There is no quick fix to this issue.

So it would not be sensible to support such a complicated change without having a costed plan. This is what the Lords amendment lacked and why I did not support it.

I do not though underestimate the size of the plan required. There are estimated to be 200,000km of combined sewers in our country. In 2020 water companies discharged raw sewage into English rivers over 400,000 times and this is an issue the government and water industry need to tackle faster.

The Environment Bill has already started to do this with new duties on water companies to monitor water quality around sewage disposal works and to introduce Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans. I have attached a letter from the minister detailing some of the work in this area.

The government is also tabling a new amendment to address the weaknesses of the earlier Lords Amendment. This will strengthen the legislation placing a new duty on water companies that reduces, over time, the impact of storm overflow discharges and provides for enforcement too.

This is better than the previous amendment, and I will support it. It is better because it recognises that further progress is urgently needed but that there is no quick fix which can deal with centuries of building practice.

Having worked with local councillors over pollution in the River Nidd, taken up the issue of discharges in several locations in our area, raised with the Chief Executive of Yorkshire Water storm overflows in Staveley I hope I have shown not only national but also local action on this matter.

Thank you again for raising the issue with me. Again, it is more complicated than simply raising my hand for an amendment.

The Environment Bill tackles the issue in a planned systematic way, and I am sure that is the correct way to tackle this issue. To totally eliminate combined sewers means 200,000km of roadworks and the bill running into hundreds of billions of pounds causing water bills to go up by thousands of pounds for every household.

We all want fast progress on the issue but that requires a plan.

To have voted for the Lords amendment without a plan, a recognition of the vast funds required or an enforcement mechanism would have done a dis-service to the seriousness of the issue.

I will be voting for the new amendment reducing sewage discharges into rivers and the sea, alongside the other measures in the Bill to improve our environment.

Andrew Jones MP