New survey shows river pollution is a major issue for the British public

River Anker Nuneaton
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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.

Having healthy rivers by that year is far more ambitious than the current official goal for England. Policymakers have set targets to clean up waterways by the 2060s in the country.

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.

Sewage scandal

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.

Read on...

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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”.


Featured image via Rubbish Computer / Wikimedia, cropped to 700×403, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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  • Show Comments
    1. Despite your right on self proclaimed ‘progressivism’ you have the colonialist Anglo centric mindset. You are not reporting on the BRITISH public. You are reporting about the condition of waters in England, where water services have been privatised for more than 30 years.

      In Scotland, water is still publicly owned and the condition of waters in and around Scotland are pretty high and have been improving steadily. Scotland has more than 80% of U.K. water, both fresh and sea water. Discharges into rivers, while still occurring in times of very heavy rainfall are rarer. Scottish Water is currently upgrading sewage infrastructure and recently, the Kelvin close to where I live had had all it sold sewerage pipes removed and new ‘scrubbing’ technology installed.

      This story has been run several weeks ago in the Guardian and other media using the same colonialist British/English terminology. The Guardian apologised and amended its archive to change ‘Britain’ to ‘England’.

    2. Selling of our silver was a big robbery of our age .now we have these companies not spending on their infrastructure but paying out to shareholders .isn’t about time we forced our governments to get them back under government control

      1. Water IS under the control of the Scottish Government. Although the privatisation of water predated the re-establishment of the Scottish Government in 1997, Scottish local authorities had opposed privatisation and, because Scotland has a separate legal system the legislation for privatisation did not cover Scotland and no specific act for Scotland was passed. When the Scottish Government was re-established powers over water were devolved.

        Because Wales and Northern Ireland did not have separate legal systems the privatisation legislation for water covered these countries, too. The Assemblies for both countries will have devolved powers over water, but I suspect that these will be fairly limited. In any case, it is likely that the water companies would lobby their cronies in Westminster to ensure that they could continue to profiteer and pollute as they do in England.

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