Sewage has gone from the subject no-one wants to think about to the talk of the town, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Long-time readers will know that I’ve been campaigning to protect and enhance our local water ways since before my election. I’m incredibly proud to have been the driving force behind the establishment of the government’s Chalk Streams Task Force, working with Water Resources East and the Cam Valley Forum to protect our local streams. While lobbying to see updates in the regulatory framework for creating new reservoirs, something we need more of to take the pressure off our drying streams, I’m also working to give legal protection to chalk streams as a threatened habitat.
Last year, local and national conversation turned with considerable apprehension towards a specific concern: sewage discharge. Due to a deeply misunderstood vote, a new light was thrown on the subject and people called for action. It was great to have the public voice behind those of us in Parliament fighting for this, and I was able to suggest a more appropriate amendment that later was voted into law. Now, we need to ensure OfWat, the water regulator, has the power and resolve to come down hard on discharges, and I’m calling for a range of measures including the limiting of executive bonuses for water company executives who do not meet environmental targets.
I’ve made this intention clear to water companies, writing to our local sewage providers to urge them to come clean over any potential breaches of their sewage discharge licences. I want to hear how they will comply with legislation, including the amendment I championed in the 2021 Environment Act, and what they are doing to reduce sewage discharge.
Last Friday, I followed up by meeting the Chief Executive of Anglian Water, Peter Simpson, at their sewage works in Haslingfield – the glamour of an MP’s job is not lost on me at these moments. It turned out to be a genuinely eye-opening trip, following the journey of sewage from the home through what turns out to be quite a natural process. Just one stage of the cleaning process features chemicals, with the rest focused on nature-based solutions that have worked in our rivers for time immemorial.
I pressed them on how they were meeting the new framework and was pleased to hear of their progress – they want to be on the right side of this, and I urge them to stay there or face the not just my fury, but that of the public and the regulators too. The good news is they are acting to reduce sewage discharges. I’m glad to say that unlike other water companies, they had not illegally breached their discharge licences. I’ll be keeping a very close eye as their plans develop.
There is one grave threat to this agenda. The District Council are proposing to build another 49,000 homes. That’s 49,000 more sets of taps that need to run and bathrooms that need to be drained, putting intolerable strain on our already parched landscape. In their own announcements, the Lib Dems, who run our District Council, made it clear that without urgent action by anyone other than them, “meeting these ambitions for the Plan may not be possible”, adding that plans already in place “won’t be built quickly enough to supply housing”.
It beggars belief that the Lib Dems are choosing to build a completely unsustainable number of new homes, far in excess of the government’s expectations. I am urging them to scale back their plans rather than taking a huge environmental gamble with our water resources.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver a visionary strategy that could have a lasting impact not only on an environmental level, but also on the quality and quantity of water available to residents and nature alike, for decades to come.