Nearly 50 years ago, Britain was dubbed the ‘dirty man of Europe’ because of our vile rivers and beaches, foul air and weak nature protection laws.
Shamed into taking action by the courts over the ensuing decades, we were forced to come into line with European rules – dragged kicking and screaming into a cleaner, greener age.
And, in many ways, the UK is now a much healthier place to live in than it was back then.
The reality is that whenever it rains heavily, our antiquated systems cannot cope, and dumping disgusting waste into rivers and waterways has become routine for water companies
Our air is better, we recycle more waste, we are all much more aware of the environment and we have started to lead the world in reducing carbon emissions.
And yet, just as government prepares to host the world’s most important environmental meeting in years, water pollution is once again rearing its rancid head.
Last week, MPs voted to block an amendment to the Environment Bill which would have prevented water companies from chucking vast amounts of untreated sewage straight into our rivers and seas.
It was a decision that sparked outrage which was further inflamed when film footage from Budds farm, Southern Water’s largest sewage treatment plant in Hampshire, emerged yesterday showing a deluge of rank, untreated sewage pouring into neighbouring Langstone Harbour.
Much of the discharge from water companies occurs when sewerage systems are overwhelmed by storms and floods.
And in an attempt to resolve the situation, the Government – which had initially appeared to side with the water companies – was last night forced into a climbdown, and introduced a new amendment for MPs to vote on.
This amendment, says the Department of Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, will ‘ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows’.
Although many still believe the amendment does not go far enough.
Discharging raw sewage is supposed to take place only as a last resort.
The inevitable result is that Britain is yet again saddled with some of the dirtiest rivers and beaches in Europe
But the reality is that, whenever it rains heavily, our antiquated systems cannot cope, and dumping disgusting waste into rivers and waterways has become routine for water companies.
Shockingly, there were more than 400,000 water pollution incidents last year with firms pumping raw sewage into England’s waters for a staggering three million hours in total.
The inevitable result is that Britain is yet again saddled with some of the dirtiest rivers and beaches in Europe.
Fearful that they will be forced to clean up their act, water firms and other polluters argue it would cost hundreds of billions of pounds to fix our inadequate Victorian sewerage systems.
They add that bills would have to rise steeply to pay for the repairs, just at a time when the cost of living is soaring.
The Government and MPs who voted against the amendment were worried about how unpopular this would be with voters. But the relentless tide of filth cannot continue.
And the water firms’ argument for not taking more action is rich coming from fabulously wealthy private companies which have – for decades – enjoyed monopolies and, since they were privatised three decades ago, have hugely increased our bills to make billions for their shareholders and executives.
The difficulty is that current laws are little, if any, deterrent.
Southern Water – which regularly makes more than £200million profit a year and pays large bonuses to executives – was fined £90million in July for repeatedly pumping raw sewage around much of the South East coast and the Isle of Wight.
Canterbury Crown Court – which found Southern Water guilty of 51 charges of releasing raw sewage – said it was the ‘worst case brought by the Environment Agency in its history’.
Sewage on the Jubliee River in 2020. There were more than 400,000 water pollution incidents last year with firms pumping raw sewage into England’s waters for a staggering three million hours in total
But perhaps most shockingly, the prosecution explained it had been done ‘deliberately’, because it is cheaper for water companies to cynically pay the fines rather than to properly treat the sewage before releasing it.
And the health implications of such behaviour cannot be overstated.
Back in the 19th century, polluted water led to cholera and other diseases, and it took huge public investment to eradicate the threat.
The UK went on to develop the world’s cleanest urban drinking water supply, but it is no exaggeration to say we are now in real danger of experiencing more water-borne diseases as pollutants increasingly leak into our waterways and contaminate crops because flooding of farmland is so common.
Record numbers of people are going to the seaside and enjoying the new boom in wild swimming in our rivers and lakes – and nasty illnesses seem all too likely to follow.
This Environment Bill is the best opportunity Britain has had in many years to end this scourge of mass pollution.
And this amendment is certainly a start. If our politicians don’t act decisively, the stench of scandal will be with them for years to come.