It’s the scandal of the summer (well, one of them).
Dozens of pollution warnings have been issued for beaches and swimming spots in England and Wales after heavy rain overwhelmed the Victorian sewage system.
The result? Raw sewage being dumped into the sea, a metaphor for Britain in 2022 if ever there was one.
Water companies (in their role as “sewerage undertakers”) are discharging the untreated wastewater through storm overflow systems so it doesn’t flood houses and businesses.
But the fact releasing raw or partially treated sewage 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.
So who is to blame? Well, there seems to be plenty of it to pass around.
The Government Blames Water Companies
The government has insisted water companies are responsible for reducing sewage discharges.
Amid growing calls for ministers to clamp down on those contributing to pollution, Number 10 on Monday said it was the duty of firms to put customers before shareholders.
Water firms are being criticised for not investing money back into the UK’s outdated water infrastructure, with mounting pressure on ministers to intervene.
“We have been clear that the failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges is completely unacceptable,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said.
“They have a duty to put their customers before shareholders and we would expect them to take urgent action on this issue or face fines.”
The spokeswoman added: “We continue to speak regularly with them, the Environment Agency undertake enforcement action and monitoring, which we have stepped up.”
Downing Street said water companies were already facing legal action from regulators.
The spokeswoman said: “Since 2015 the Environment Agency has brought 48 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies, securing fines of over £137 million.”
She added that since privatisation the equivalent of £5 billion had been invested to upgrade water infrastructure but the companies must “continue to take action”.
In a report published in July, the Environment Agency said water company bosses should face jail for the worst pollution incidents, describing the sector’s performance in 2021 as the “worst we have seen for years”.
The Opposition Blames The Government
Labour has accused the government of having its “head in the sand” over the state of Britain’s beaches.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said ministers had not been tough enough on water companies and had been cutting funding for the Environment Agency, which oversees pollution issues.
“I think there is huge anger about the sewage situation, because we’re seeing yet again sewage pumped into our rivers and into our seas,” he said.
“What it shows is that the government hasn’t been tough enough on the water companies and the enforcement against the water companies.
“Of course, at the same time they have been cutting money to the Environment Agency.
“We can’t go on like this with a government that knows there is a problem there, does absolutely nothing about it and it couldn’t come at a worse time.
“It is damaging our environment, but of course it is really affecting businesses at the height of the tourist season. Yet again, we say to the government, get your head out of the sand and do something about it.”
The party widened the attack on Monday night to claim it was Tory leadership frontrunner Liz Truss who was environment secretary when cuts to the Environment Agency were implemented.
The Lib Dems, too, have criticised ministers as they’ve highlighted the generous water company executive salaries and how the sewage monitors are faulty.
Environment spokesperson for the Lib Dems, Tim Farron MP, said: “Britain’s seaside resorts are being swamped by foul sewage yet the government is nowhere to be found.”
Boris Johnson’s Dad Blames The Government
Boris Johnson’s father Stanley blamed his son’s administration for the sewage problem.
In an interview with the prime minister’s sister Rachel Johnson on LBC radio, Stanley Johnson said: “We have to blame the government for not pressing this matter as hard as it should’ve done.
“Absent the EU push as well, you can understand how the government felt able to not push this thing as it should’ve pushed.”
It was a segment so weird a Tory MP called out the “nepotism”.
Twitter Blames Tory MPs
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.”
Others Blame The Water Regulator
Ofwat, the water regulator, has been accused of failing to crackdown on the industry, with critics pointing to a “revolving door” where executives of the companies went to work for the watchdog and vice versa.
Philip Dunne, the Conservative MP for Ludlow and chair of the Commons environmental audit committee, told the Guardian: “They do have the power to sanction remuneration arrangements for directors already, and I don’t think they have done that.”
Martin Salter, the policy chief at the Angling Trust, said: “For years (Ofwat) gave water companies a licence to leak while ministers failed to demand the levels of infrastructure investment needed to enable us to store water in times of surplus in order to protect consumers, the environment and the economy in times like these.”