Water companies must be held accountable for this almighty sewage mess

It is not necessary to argue that my constituent is the most beautiful in this country. This claim is obvious. Two of the most stunning national parks in the country are the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. 

The stunning views are not the truth. Our meres, tarns, rivers, and lakes are being choked and polluted – with our own filth.  

United Utilities, the local water company, discharged sewage for 8,940 hours – or 353 days – into the River Lune, Sedburgh in 2020. It was the longest sewage release in the country. It had competition. 

The magnificent Derwent Water, located in the heart of Lake District, had sewage leaking into its system for 8,275 hours. 


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The situation is even worse on a national level. For a total of 3.1 Million hours, 2020 saw water companies discharge raw sewage 400,000 more times than usual. 

Our rivers have been left in a horrible state by water companies. It has caused irreparable damage by pumping raw sewage into the rivers. Only 14 percent are considered ecologically “good” and over half have failed cleanliness tests. 

It is spring, and summer is coming soon. The UK’s waterways will soon be teeming with swimmers, dippers, and paddlers. In my area, 80 percent work in hospitality or tourism. It is the bread of our communities.  

I hate to think of families who hesitate to visit the Lakes and Dales due to fear of what might be in the water. Let me be very clear. We are not there yet – but we are on a dangerous trajectory. 

Our local team is working hard to ensure that Windermere lake has a bathing water status. It is the UK’s most visited destination outside of London, and a precious part of the landscape. We need the Government’s support. 

There is also an ecological impact. The waterways are home to thousands of species. Protecting biodiversity for the future generations is possible only by ensuring that rivers, streams, lakes and other waterways are in good condition. In the last 100 years, the UK has lost 90% of its wetland habitats. We cannot afford to lose any more. 

A recent report by MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee reported that “rivers in England are in a mess”. There are 42 major salmon rivers in England. 39 of the 42 populations are at risk or likely to be at risk. 

When one part of the interconnected, complex world of a river is damaged, the entire ecosystem is affected; from duckweed and dragonflies to otters and trout. 

Last Monday, Parliament approved my amendment to The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. It would have required that the Government publish an annual report on the number sentient animals who were killed or injured by sewage discharges. But 286 Conservative MPs voted against it, so it didn’t become law.  

It was yet more evidence that the Government does not care about water quality. Ministers were dragged kicking and screaming to submit an amendment which sets a duty on water companies to “progressively reduce” sewage discharged through storm overflows. There are no targets for volume and timescale. Water companies can continue to operate as they are. 

This is not enough. We must set water companies real targets and give Ofwat the teeth to make them accountable. 

Water companies must be held accountable. Yes, our sewage systems have become obsolete and are not up to the task. They are not equipped to handle the task. This is not a money problem. United Utilities raked in profits of £602 million in 2020. Nationally, water companies took £2.8 billion. 

That is why the Liberal Democrats are calling for a ‘sewage tax’ on the companies responsible for this environmental atrocity. A 16% pre-tax levy would raise £340 million each year which could go towards cleaning up our rivers and lakes, beginning the work to restore and treasure them as they should be. 

Long before we were, rivers, lakes, and coastlines existed. We must ensure that they are available for future generations. 

The public get it – hundreds of constituents have contacted me to express their outrage. It is time for the Government to listen and to act – to force companies complicit in this destruction to clean up their almighty mess.