A new poll shows that the state of rivers in Britain is a significant issue for many of the British public. Commissioned by the environmental nonprofit River Action, the survey also found that over 90% of people back the idea that rivers should be healthy by 2030.
Strong support for quick water pollution action
River Action released the results of the survey on 25 April. It found overwhelming support for action to clean up rivers sooner rather than later. Of those polled, 94% backed having healthy rivers by 2030. 74% of these felt strongly about the aim. River Action has outlined an action plan for achieving river health by this deadline in its Charter for Rivers.
Almost half of the respondents also indicated that they would consider a party’s position on river health when voting. Meanwhile, only 6% of respondents were satisfied with the government’s efforts to protect rivers through enforcing the law.
The survey took place in early April and received around 2,000 responses.
The results reflect growing concerns among the public about the poor state of waterways, particularly in England. According to the Environment Agency and Natural England, only 16% of England’s waters had “good ecological status” by 2019. These surface waters include rivers, lakes, estuaries, and coastal waters. The poor quality is due to pollution from sources such as agriculture and sewage.
Water companies’ release of raw sewage into England’s waterways has been extensive. As the BBC reported, the latest statistics showed that they did so 825 times a day on average in 2022. In total, companies released sewage for 1.75 million hours that year.
Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey launched a plan for cleaner water at the start of April, amid the public disquiet over sewage pollution. However, she indicated that the public could end up bearing the costs of upgrading the sewer network, piling “hundreds of pounds on people’s bills”.
Burdening the consumer, rather than the water companies, with these costs would be unlikely to ease anger over the sewage scandal. As the Guardian has revealed, although the privatised industry is heavily debt-ridden, water and sewage companies in England have paid out £65.9bn to shareholders in dividends.
Coffey was the parliamentary under-secretary of state for the environment from 2016 to 2019. The key responsibilities of that role include waterways and the marine environment, meaning that the now-environment secretary held a key position as the sewage scandal started to spiral.
The tip of a water pollution fatberg
Commenting on River Action’s survey results and charter, Wildlife & Countryside Link CEO Richard Benwell said:
Toxic chemicals, agricultural run-off, over-use, and habitat destruction all make UK rivers inhospitable for wildlife and water users, even before you add the outrage of water company pollution. To halt the decline of nature by 2030, none of these can continue. The Charter is a message to decision-makers that the future of our freshwaters means change on every front. Sewage pollution is just the tip of the fatberg.
The release of the findings is timely – and uncomfortable for the government. On 4 May, many people in England will go to the polls. Voters will be able to make their views on their representatives’ efforts on water pollution known in these local elections.
Water pollution will cost parties at the ballot box
On 25 April, Labour used a motion to try and force a vote on its recently introduced Water Quality (Sewage Discharge) Bill. The bill would introduce automatic fines on water companies for sewage dumping, among other measures.
As the Guardian indicated in its reporting on the motion, Labour’s move is timely and tactical. The publication said that a failure by the party of government to support a vote on the bill would:
allow Labour to say Tory MPs had opposed plans to clean up rivers, beaches and chalk streams, a potentially potent attack before local elections
As expected, Conservative MPs opposed Labour’s attempt to force the vote on sewage. Relatedly, during a 2021 vote in parliament on the Environment Bill, the then-government urged its Conservative MPs to vote down an amendment that would have imposed a legal duty on water companies to end sewage discharges.
Responding to Labour’s game plan to force the vote, Greenpeace UK’s Megan Corton Scott warned that:
More dither and delay from the government will only cost them at the ballot box.
Scott highlighted that the sewage scandal has “united the country in outrage”.
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