In delivering Brexit, the UK public were promised a ‘green Brexit’; one where environmental regulations would be improved on what the UK had when they were part of the European Union. In fact, we were told the EU were holding the UK back when it came to protecting the natural environment. Whilst there have been some improvements to the way UK protects its natural environment, there has been a reduction in environmental regulation post-Brexit and this most recent vote does little to protect the environment.

All eyes have been on the UK with COP26 entering its second week in Glasgow. The 26th Conference of the Parties is a global climate summit where countries can come together and reach an agreement on how best to tackle the climate emergency. If there was ever a time when it needed to at least look like the UK are taking the climate emergency seriously and doing everything they can to protect the environment, this is it.

Barely two weeks ago, the Conservative party voted down a bill that would stop water companies from dumping sewage into rivers and the seas that surround this country. Original justifications for voting down the bill were primarily based around the cost of upgrading the infrastructure, some estimating between £150-650billion although that was quickly rubbished with the actual much, much lower. After huge public backlash to that vote, a new amendment was tabled and passed through the Commons on Monday despite many saying it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

It may not be directly related to climate change, but it will do nothing to protect or enhance the UK’s natural environment. It’s a despicable example of where we’re not holding those that are causing the environmental damage. If we’re not going to hold water companies to account for the damage they are doing to the natural environment, what chance do we have when it comes to fossil fuel companies and the biggest carbon emitters?

Loose Language

For anyone who hasn’t read it, the amendment that passed through the Commons on Monday is below:

“141ZA Duty on sewerage undertakers to all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows

(1) A sewerage undertaker must demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges

(2) The Secretary of State, the Director and the Environment Agency must exercise their respective functions under this and any other Act to secure compliance with this duty.

UK Parliamentary Bills

There’s nothing specific. Nothing that would hold water companies accountable for the waste. How would you define ‘improvements’ and ‘progressive reductions’? In 2020, water companies discharged sewage water over 400,000 times. Across all water companies and all discharge points, that is more than 3.1 million hours spent discharging sewage into UK rivers and seas. Would a progressive reduction be 10,000 fewer occasions of sewage discharge? It may sound a lot but that’s still 390,000 times sewage will be discharged.

The government may have been forced to table this issue again but they’ve only gone from doing absolutely nothing to reduce the dumping of sewage to looking like they’re doing something but actually still doing nothing.

Nothing to Discourage the Dumping of Sewage

There’s already so little to discourage the dumping of sewage but even the actions the Environment Agency are taking seem to be doing so little to stop the environmental damage.

Back in July, Southern Water were fined £90million for dumping billions of litres of sewage into the sea between 2010 and 2015 (so not even recently). However, only three months after receiving that fine they were recorded dumping sewage at 60 locations across the south coast between Bournemouth and London.

That was the largest single fine imposed upon a water company in history, yet its done nothing to deter them from dumping sewage into the natural environment. In fact, since 2010, UK companies have paid over £4billion in fines for environmental, water service, workplace health and safety and labour violations. Not only that, but water companies have also been cutting dividend checks worth a total of £57billion over the last 30 years.

If it’s more economical to potentially face multi-million pound fines for dumping sewage into the natural environment then penalties/punishments surely must be increased and those allowing it to happen must be held to a much, much greater account. It’s beyond time that we prioritise the environment over a fat bottom line and extortionate payouts to shareholders.

The Water Management Monopoly

UK water was privatised in 1989 by the Conservative Party after years of underfunding services (funny how they do that…). The country was split into 10 regional water authorities that still remain today. The problem with the way this was done is that it produced a monopoly on water services.

If you have bad service or feel your water bill is higher than it should be, tough. The regional split of water companies mean that there’s no way of changing to a different supplier or management company because there is no alternative available to you – something that all the investment companies who either own outright or have shares in are well aware of.

Whilst there may have been changes since the publication of this 2018 GMB Union article, but at that point more than 70% of the UK’s water companies were owned by foreign companies and investors. Malaysian company YTL Corporation Berhard have owned Wessex Water since 2002, 80% of Northumbrian Water is owned by the Cheung Kong Group (run by the richest person in Hong Kong), and 40% of Southern Water is owned by JP Morgan Asset Management, a US-based investment company.

These companies aren’t investing in UK water management because of their altruistic nature; investment companies and hedge funds are in the business of making money not making things better and protecting the environment unless that would financially serve them, which in this case it does not. They’re investing because there are guaranteed returns for them – a paying public who quite literally have no other choice but to pay them for water services, very few laws and regulations that would force them to spend huge amounts of money and a government who seem happy to do nothing to change that.

Now the lack of investment in UK sewage management and the constant dumping of sewage is starting to make sense, isn’t it.

Where Do We Go Now?

It’s clear that the UK Government have no intention of going as far as they should to protect the UK environment. Water companies are being allowed to do what they like with sewage they should be treating. They are fined tens of millions of pounds for illegally dumping sewage but they continue to flout the existing laws and regulations.

The new amendment is just words. There’s no standard, no specifics and nothing measurable within the most recent amendment. In fact you could easily go as far as saying they’ve now just made it legal for companies to dump sewage whenever they like and their argument can now be ‘but we’re trying to stop’. The UK has some of the worst polluted rivers in Europe but we seem to be wearing that like a badge of honour rather than actually take some action and start cleaning up the environment.

In a world of Boris, Brexit and a corrupt Tory Party, the fact Tories voted to let water companies almost freely dump sewage into the natural environment shouldn’t come as a shock. All the talk of a ‘green Brexit’ and taking environmental action is nothing but more hot air for a party that seem far more intent on lining their own pockets.

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