Chichester MP Gillian Keegan responds to anger at sewage vote

Chichester's MP Gillian Keegan has today responded to concerned constituents after voting not to force water companies to reduce sewage pollution along the coast.

Wednesday, 27th October 2021, 11:35 am

Conservative MPs have been accused of allowing water companies, including Southern Water, to dump sewage into rivers and seas.

Proposals from the House of Lords would have meant water companies would have to reduce the amount of sewage pumped into the sea but it they were voted down.

Laura Eccott, of Chichester's Green party, said: “How can we possibly feel represented by someone unwilling to vote to ensure it isn't cheaper to pollute than to protect?”.

Chichester MP Gillian Keegan

The list of MPs includes Gillian Keegan and Nick Gibb and a number of others across Sussex.

Watch the video showing Southern Water dumping sewage into the seaIn a statement sent to this newspaper, Mrs Keegan said: "There has been a fair amount of misleading information on social media about the use of Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) which are currently permitted under licence by the Environment Agency.

"First, let me be clear on my personal view, I am very concerned about the use of storm overflows, and of course do not need convincing as to the importance of ensuring our harbours, rivers, and estuaries are clean and environmentally healthy. This is an issue I have been very focused on since I was elected in 2017 when I first discovered the gruesome details of how we manage our water system.

"Many people have approached me, and written to me, about the recent votes on the Environment Bill. In particular, concerns have been raised that a section (141A) of Amendment 45, tabled by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords, was removed.

"The section sought to place a new duty on sewerage undertakers in England and Wales (Southern Water in our case) to demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage.

Anti-vaxxers disrupt another charity fundraiser in Chichester"This sounds like the right action to take, and indeed is something I absolutely support in principle. However, the issue with this amendment was that there is no plan as to how this would be delivered and no impact assessment whatsoever.

"I appreciate the argument that such a plan is not essential, as it is certainly my ambition to end CSOs. However, anyone involved in work to bring this about knows that changing the law without a plan is not the solution.

"Indeed this could have a very negative impact on the operation of our sewage system – after all, if we banned sewage discharge overnight the only alternative would be for the overloaded system to back up into our homes and onto our streets.

"To eliminate storm overflows, we have to transform a system that has operated since the Victorian Era, the preliminary cost of which is estimated to be at least £150 billion. For context, £150 billion is more than the entire schools, policing and defence budgets put together. The higher-end estimates are significantly more than we have spent on the pandemic to date.

"Therefore we need to take a different approach to achieve our common goal to eliminate the use of CSOs. The remaining Lords amendments relating to storm overflows were passed, including the rest of Amendment 45; one of which places a legal duty on the Government to publish a plan by 1 September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows.

"A separate amendment will also place a duty on the Government to publish a report on the ‘mechanics’ of eliminating overflows entirely (also due before 1 September next year).

"This is essential, as it will provide Parliament and the public with up-front, clear and comprehensive information on the cost and impact of eliminating combined storm overflows.

"I think it is important to reiterate, I fully supported the ambitions of the Duke’s amendment. However, I believe we need a detailed response where we have a strategy and a plan, which can then be challenged, improved, and followed up on, as opposed to legislating without any way to achieve the goal.

"That said, the Environment Bill is key to resolving this issue and legislates to ensure the production of plans to reduce and eliminate storm overflows. The Bill will ensure firm and immediate action to tackle storm overflows in the short-term by introducing:

" - A new duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operations on an annual basis.

" - A new duty on water companies to publish near real-time information (within one hour) of the commencement of an overflow, its location and when it ceases.

" - A new duty on water companies to continuously monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow and of sewage disposal works.

" - A new duty on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans; setting out how the company will manage and develop its networks, and how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.

"Outside of the Bill, my colleagues have made their expectations crystal clear in Defra’s draft Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat.

"The Government will be telling the industry’s financial regulator that it expects water companies to take steps to “significantly reduce storm overflows”, and that it expects funding to be approved for them to do so.

"Defra Ministers will also undertake a review of legislation which would require Sustainable Drainage Systems (or SuDS) to be constructed to ministerial standards on new developments, which will reduce the pressure on the sewage system through the reduction in surface road water.

"All of these measures are informed by the work of the Storm Overflows Task Force, which the Government established in August 2020 to bring together key stakeholders from the water industry, environmental NGOs, regulators, and Government in order to drive progress in reducing sewage discharges.

"The Taskforce has agreed on a goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows.

"I cannot overstate how seriously I take this issue – and that is why it is important that we vote for legislation that will deliver real improvements as opposed to ill-thought through legislation which could result in sewage backing up in many public areas and private homes.

"Since becoming the MP for Chichester, I have been working on these issues and pushing for better outcomes locally. This work has helped increase investment in the network in villages around the Chichester area and has brought together the key parties responsible.

"As a result of this work our area now has several working groups dedicated to collaboratively working to solve poor water quality in Chichester Harbour and the surrounding waterways.

"Furthermore, I have co-founded a forum of MPs that covers the Solent Region, who are collectively holding Southern Water’s feet to the fire and ensuring the Minister for the Environment, Rebecca Pow is aware of the issues we face locally. Successfully so, as just last week she spoke about our efforts in Parliament.

"We have made, and are continuing to make, massive strides locally - every key agency that has a role in monitoring, enforcement, operations, environmental management, planning, governance and policy have come together to tackle the water quality situation in our area.

"As part of this work, we are hoping to achieve live monitoring of inputs to the Harbour and surrounding waterways, but then also to implement solutions. Including reducing the pressures on the sewer system and reducing the CSOs that plague our national waterways.

"Locally, there has also been some significant sewage infrastructure investment, totalling over £81 million in my constituency alone, covering the major wastewater treatment works.

"My promise to you is I will continue to do whatever I can within my power to support the delivery of real improvements within the Chichester Constituency, and the UK as a whole."

On Tuesday, the government responded to criticism and announced an amendment to the bill that will see a duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Earlier this summer, the Government published a new strategic policy priorities for Ofwat and the water sector asking them to significantly reduce the discharge of sewage from storm overflows in the next pricing review.

“Following a debate in the House of Commons last week during the final stages of the Environment Bill, today we are announcing that we will put that commitment on a statutory footing with a new clause.”

The Government said it will hold underperforming companies to account.