Liz Truss has defended her decision to significantly cut government spending on the Environment Agency during her time overseeing the body, despite the recent outrage over raw sewage being dumped into the sea.
The Labour Party has claimed a £235m axe to the arms-length agency’s budget when Truss was environment secretary resulted in “doubled sewage discharge”.
But at a Tory leadership hustings in Birmingham on Tuesday, the frontrunner was in defiant mood as she suggested she had few regrets over the decision.
“I am a great believer in value for money from public services. And believe me, there are plenty of things the Environment Agency were doing that they shouldn’t have been doing,” Truss said.
She also criticised Ofwat, the water watchdog, and said that regulators had been subject to “mission creep”.
“I do think there are problems with the way utilities are regulated,” she said. “And I certainly think it’s the case that water companies need to be better at stopping leaks.”
Labour Party analysis of official figures shows that since 2016, when the Tory leadership hopeful was in charge of Defra, raw sewage discharge more than doubled from 14.7 spill events per overflow in 2016 to 29.3 in 2021.
This coincided with her cutting £80m of sewage monitors as part of the sacliong back of the Environment Agency’s budget, which she branded “efficiency savings”.
It comes as dozens of pollution warnings were issued for beaches and swimming spots in England and Wales following heavy rain that overwhelmed the sewage system.
That releasing raw or partially treated sewage into the UK’s rivers and coastal waters is still a legal practice – and has been for decades, despite efforts to ban it – has gained outrage in recent years.
Water firms are being criticised for not investing money back into the UK’s outdated water infrastructure, with mounting pressure on ministers to intervene.
On social media, people have revived the government backlash from October over new post-Brexit legislation governing water quality.
Ministers were forced to U-turn after rejecting an amendment to the Environment Bill which would have forced water companies to stop allowing untreated sewage to enter British waterways.
Instead, they insisted a “progressive reduction” in the practice.
But many have seized on the fact 268 Tory MPs voted for a watered down version of the House of Lords’ version of the bill.
Broadcaster Gary Lineker tweeted on Monday: “As a politician how could you ever, under any circumstances, bring yourself to vote for pumping sewage into our seas? Unfathomable!”
But those MPs have defended their position. At the time, they pointed to the suggestion that upgrading the sewers to stop any discharges would cost up to £660 billion.
They also say the final legislation – now enshrined in the Environment Act – and the “progressive reduction” in sea sewage is closely resembles the initial proposal tabled by the Duke of Wellington, an independent crossbencher, in the Lords.
Tory MP Graham Stuart tweeted: “Tory MPs acted to reduce sewage dumps into rivers – not increase them. Social media has allowed anti-Tory groups to suggest the exact opposite of the truth – to ill effect – but their evident satisfaction.”