It’s the campaign leaflet of many a Liberal Democrat activist’s steamiest dreams: Your Tory MP voted to dump sewage in your beloved local river.
This gift was bestowed upon Blue Wall insurgents throughout the Shires last October, when headlines accused Conservative MPs of voting to dump sewage in Britain’s rivers and seas. The level of public outrage – unexpected by even the least bubbly of the Westminster bubble – spooked the government at the time. News sites published lists of the MPs said to have cast such an egregious vote.
“It’s a complete nightmare for Conservative MPs,” David Gauke, the former cabinet minister who was Tory MP for South West Hertfordshire from 2005-19, told me at the time. He said voters in his old constituency had been exercised by this issue for “some months”.
“I still live there,” he said. “I’m a relatively short walk away from the River Chess and it’s been an issue talked about for some months, of sewage discharges into the River Chess, which is a lovely river and a lovely walk… But the water has been filthy for much of the last few months…
“It’s a political gift to the Liberal Democrats to say ‘your local Tories have voted against it’ and ‘this is the MP who is in favour of raw sewage being poured into the River Chess’ or whatever river it might be, so it’s a bit of a nightmare.”
So why did Tory MPs vote for this? The truth, like our waterways, is a little murkier. What MPs were actually voting on at the time was a House of Lords amendment to the Environment Bill. The amendment, tabled by Charles Wellesley, a hereditary peer, would have forced water companies by law “to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”.
Tory MPs who voted it down, defeating it by 265 to 202 votes, argued that the amendment was poorly worded and uncosted. The infrastructure changes required to meet this mandate would have cost hundreds of billions, and consumers would have ended up with higher water bills, they argued. They also suggested the existing legislation included the necessary safeguards.
Yet 22 Tory MPs rebelled, and it was a PR disaster for the party – particularly for MPs representing coastal and riverside constituencies, where emails and letters began flooding in like effluent on a wet autumn day.
Even if it’s inaccurate to say the Tory line was to continue dumping sewage, the government is still accountable for the actions of our water companies. While they are allowed in extreme circumstances to run waste water into the waterways, to release pressure on the system, they have been doing it more often lately: the number of serious pollution incidents last year was 62 – the highest number since 2013.
Ministers in successive Conservative governments have had the chance to tighten up water regulation for more than a decade and failed to do so. In fact, the Environment Agency – a government body – earlier this year called for prison sentences for the water bosses behind serious pollution. When Liz Truss, the frontrunner to be the next prime minister, was environment secretary, she oversaw a £24m cut to environmental protection, which included surveillance of water companies to prevent raw sewage release.
All the while, England’s nine water firms have been allowed to amass debts of around £50bn, while paying out at least £57bn to shareholders, since water was privatised by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989.
“Over the years the public have seen water company executives and investors rewarded handsomely while the environment pays the price,” concluded the latest Environment Agency report on water pollution. “The water companies are behaving like this for a simple reason: because they can.”