I share Fylde residents’ concerns regarding bathing water quality. It is an issue that has been left unaddressed for far too long, with our sewage and drainage networks under invested and with such monitoring of storm overflows having previously been so low, it is only recently that data has been able to confirm the scale of an issue I have long fought to resolve.
It is worth noting that across the country, bathing waters are cleaner now than they were in 2009 under the last Labour Government, and that monitoring of storm overflows has increased from 7% in 2010 to 90% this year, reaching 100% coverage by the end of 2023.
While there are urgent steps that can be taken the replumbing of our drainage and sewage networks will take years to achieve. An overnight and outright ban is not only not feasible but would come at massive cost for bill payers.
Nevertheless, last year’s assessments saw St Annes North Beach downgraded to ‘satisfactory’, meaning both Fylde’s beaches meet only the lowest level of pass. Storm overflows should be just that, for use in cases of extreme weather and I am deeply worried by the frequency with which they are being used.
This is simply not good enough. Historic failings are no excuse. This situation must be rectified.
I am fully supportive of the Government’s efforts to do just that, with unprecedented action being taken to increase investment and hold offenders accountable.
This must not come solely at customers’ or taxpayers’ expense, especially not while shareholders continue to receive large dividends. The Government is supporting Ofwat in modifying licences to require companies to take account of environmental performance and customer delivery when deciding whether to pay dividends, as well as hold a strong credit rating and stop them paying dividends if their financial health is at risk.
This is a positive move and in March I wrote to the Chief Executive at OfWat to show my backing for these new powers, which will enable Ofwat to clamp down on excessive cash pay-outs and make sure companies put customers first. This will apply when a company is not meeting expectations on performance or is facing questions over its financial resilience.
- The Government’s Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, published in August 2022, set out stringent targets to protect people and the environment and is backed up by up to £56 billion capital investment, which is the largest infrastructure programme in water company history. The Government is enshrining the plan’s target into law through the Environment Act 2021. It will make its costed and credible target to reduce storm overflows legally binding, in line with the plan.
- More recently, the Government’s Plan for Water will see the Government investing around £1.6 billion to reduce sewage discharges, reduce nutrient pollution, and increase the supply of water.
- The Secretary of State has required all water companies to provide a plan for every storm overflow in the country by June.
- The Government is also consulting on proposals for unlimited fines to be imposed on water companies that break the rules, with shareholders, not customers, responsible for paying these fines.
This is far too important an issue to be used for political games. On too many occasions the opposition have sought to use amended legislation to claim that Conservative MPs have voted to allow water companies to pump sewage into our rivers when my colleagues and I did no such thing.
Indeed, in November 2021, when the Labour party most vehemently made this claim I actually voted for a package of measures to reduce harms from storm overflows. This included:
- A new duty directly on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning horizon, including how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.
- A power of direction for the Government to direct water companies in relation to the actions in these Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans.
- A new duty on Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows.
- A requirement for the Government to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate discharges from storm overflows in England, and the costs and benefits of those actions.
- A new duty directly on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
- A new duty directly on water companies to publish near real time information on the operation of storm overflows. This means it will be clear as to how often storm overflows are being used, which will aid enforcement.
- A new duty directly on water companies to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works.
At the start of May I met with Louise Beardmore, the new Chief Executive at United Utilities, and I made it clear that I expect to see flooding and water quality issues resolved. We discussed United Utilities’ plans to address these issues and I am pleased that the coming years will see £47.5 million of total investment into Fylde, including £12 million at Freckleton/Warton, £24 million at Hoyles Lane and further improvements at other sites across Fylde.
This money will also be used to address structural issues, such as the fact that just 15% of sewer capacity is used by sewage, with drainage water taking up much of the remaining capacity. Better management of rainwater is essential in creating the spare capacity that will again enable our aging sewage network to cope with incidents of extreme weather, reducing the current overreliance on so called ‘storm overflows’.
For example, east Lytham and the area surrounding Liggard Brook is a particular concern of mine and many residents have contacted me to share their concerns resulting from the untreated discharges that continue to pollute the water.
It is a topic that I have repeatedly raised with United Utilities over past years, and I want to see funds used to resolve this at the earliest opportunity. I will be holding further meetings with the Chief Executive and her team and will continue to press her to come good on her promise to tackle sewage discharge and water quality in Fylde.