Return of a Dirty Old Man

Rock-a-Nore Sewage Outfall Pipe – Source: Geograph.org – 824575

The legislation which allows sewage treatment works, at times of high discharge, to pour untreated effluent into our rivers and coastal waters has been in the news recently. On the recommendation of Environment (yes, environment!) Secretary, George Eustace, our elected representatives voted down an amendment to prevent such pollution. They seem to think the operation of the status quo, which threatens to make us the Dirty Old Man of Europe again, is somehow more important than bringing a halt to this disgusting state of affairs. You can see if your own MP is guilty of voting down this amendment here.

To quote the Folkestone Sea Bathers:

“We Folkestone sea bathers don’t really swim, we just go through the motions”.

We are right to protest in support of Extinction Rebellion; we experience differing degrees of disappointment around COP26; we want to share the ‘blah blah blah’ putdown of world leaders by Greta Thunberg. It is also legitimate to extend our dissatisfaction with the climate crisis to water pollution. For Greta’s acerbic quotation can equally apply to river and coastal water pollution, as George Richmond’s recent article on the pollution of a Cotswold river eloquently described.

Thank you, Greta! Many of us wish that, in our late teens or early twenties, we had protested more! The middle of the twentieth century saw the start of environmental consciousness, if only we had noticed it. We should have done, for as early as 1962 Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, in which she criticised indiscriminate use of pesticides, while Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the New World followed in 1970. Nicolson stated what is wrong, why a conservation movement is needed and framed the need for a global view. But we failed to create an effective conservation movement.

The UK joined the European Community 1 January 1973. This was ahead of the oil crisis of that year, and ahead of what was then landmark legislation to create a largely nationally owned water industry across England and Wales. The term ‘largely’ is used, because some water supply (only) companies would remain in private hands, albeit under strong regulation. The new-look water industry came into being on 1 April 1974. There were problems, notably of investment and debt during times of inflation, but this industry, originally conceived by a conservative administration, was there for the public good. Arguably public ownership remained a legacy of Victorian public service and civic pride providing for water supply and sewage treatment. Yet today, the term ‘Victorian infrastructure’ is used negatively when reporting water problems. The old queen died in 1901, so 120 years should have been enough to solve any problems!

In 1989 Water Act legislation privatised the water industry. Then, as now, privatisation remains controversial, although it is difficult not to see the move as a raspberry rather than a swansong at a time of Thatcher’s ailing premiership. Privatisation has variously been seen as a means of raising capital to meet EU directives concerned with environmental regulation, as well as improving overall infrastructure. It has been seen as daylight robbery of the British people in the form of asset stripping a national institution, by selling off a public service industry to private shareholders. Critics argue it was deliberately underinvested in by the Tory government prior to 1989, and that a public sector re-organisation might have anyway solved the undoubted problems of pollution, sewage management, supply network leakage and, where it occurred, poor and unjust water allocation between differing sectors.

Strangely water in Scotland and Northern Ireland was never privatised. Scottish Water is a statutory corporation responsible to the Scottish Parliament. Northern Ireland Water Ltd is a government owned company.

Opinions therefore vary as this survey by the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) shows. While some see privatisation as robbery of an industry from public ownership, others see it as instrumental in removing the label ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ in the 1970s through the enabling of new investment. However, Brexit is proving  the doomsters of 2016 essentially correct. Discharging sewage to rivers and coastal waters might be blamed on climate change increasing intensity and volumes of rainfall events, but it is also a failure of an investment strategy driven by shareholder pressure.

Surfers Against Sewage Beach Clean Perranporth – Source: SAS

Disgust and poor taste humour reflects the language used. The evocative name of the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage should resonate with the ageing Kent sea bather with memories of the 1970’s. The failure to meet the standards set by the EU Water Framework Directive 2000 makes one even more cynical (if indeed this is possible). Whichever way we may look at it, England’s water environment is deteriorating. Kent coastal waters still have massive problems as our sister publication, Kent Bylines reports, while bans on shellfish from Poole Harbour are a part of a wider problem for human consumption here or export to the EU. Inland, the quality of the water environment is going in the wrong direction. While this is not only due to sewage pollution, we are at another turning point. We look bad compared with some of our European neighbours and must make some radical changes to avoid becoming the “Dirty Old Man of Europe” once more.

Ed: Dr Hadrian Cook is a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management.


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