Will sewage be an issue with British voters at the upcoming local government elections?
Sewage is causing a stink in some of England’s most picturesque villages – and locals are fed up.
Water companies discharged raw sewage into the UK’s waterways around 825 times per day in 2022, totalling more than 1.75 million hours of spillage.
As faeces, wet wipes, and sanitary products clog up rivers and beaches, public anger is mounting. Last week, independent polling commissioned by River Action UK showed that 48 percent of Brits want healthy rivers to sit at the top of a party’s manifesto.
But will the issue be a vote-winner in Thursday’s local government elections? Campaigners from around the country – and across the political spectrum – hope so.
The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour, and Green parties have all promised to be tough on polluting companies. The government unveiled its “plan for water” last month, with suppliers set to face unlimited fines for sewage dumping.
But voters want even tougher rules, claims Paul Hodgkinson, a Liberal Democrat councillor in the Gloucestershire wards of Bourton-on-the-Water and Northleach.
“People raise it when we are out campaigning, people are very concerned about the sewage issue,” he said.
“The Cotswolds is famous for its iconic beauty, but it’s under threat.”
Hodgkinson’s ward has endured repeated sewage discharges. For 27 consecutive days between December 2022 and January 2023, Thames Water dumped sewage into local Cirencester’s Ampney Brook.
The releases prevented sewage from backing up into people’s homes, the water company claimed. But infrastructural overhaul is urgently needed, warned Hodgkinson.
“This sort of discharge happens regularly and repeatedly, far in excess of what you would consider reasonable,” he said.
“Locals are rightly furious about it.”
Parties have put sewage at the heart of their local election campaigns
The UK has some of the most polluted beaches and waterways in Europe. Only 14 per cent of rivers in England have “good” ecological status, the Environmental Agency has warned.
The country’s Victorian water infrastructure simply isn’t equipped to deal with the current population – and the situation is worsening as heavy rainfall events become more common. Sewage spills by water firms have risen 29-fold over the past five years, data from mid 2022 revealed.
The Conservatives have promised to tackle sewage discharges. The plan for water will punish companies for illegal storm overflows, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey told parliament last week.
“Water companies need to clean up their act – and they need to cover the costs,” she said.
But Labour and the Liberal Democrats are banking on public frustration to deliver electoral results, and have put the issue at the heart of their local campaigning efforts.
Labour leader Keir Starmer criticised the plan for water as “flimsy” – and has launched an attack advert to this tune. He has called for automatic fines for sewage dumping, mandatory monitoring of sewage outlets, and legally-binding targets for cleaning up the water industry.
“Do you think it’s right to allow raw sewage to be dumped into our rivers and beaches 800 times a day? Rishi Sunak does,” the party’s advert reads.
The Liberal Democrats are also pushing the issue. Last month, Leader Ed Davey called sewage discharges into England’s unique chalk streams a “crime against nature.” Water companies flooded these streams with sewage for 14,162 hours last year.
Liberal Democrat Chris Bright – a councillor in Torrington, Devon – hopes that the party will ride this frustration to an increased seat tally on Thursday.
“To most people, it makes sense that you shouldn’t be profiting from dumping sewage,” he said.
“Without tough legislation, this sort of thing happens increasingly often”.
As public awareness around the issue grows, sewage companies are under increasing pressure to upgrade infrastructure and spillage reporting systems. But some politicians are urging more radical action. The Greens have launched a campaign to bring water companies under public ownership.
People are “concerned and very angry” about polluting wastewater, says Victoria Chester, a Greens councillor for the ward of Horley East & Salfords in Surrey. Chester assists in a campaign to prevent raw sewage flowing into the local river Mole.
“Some environmental issues can be difficult to relate to – they feel too complex, abstract, or distance,” she said.
“But with sewage spills, people can see it, they can literally watch it pouring into their river – it’s an issue that’s likely to connect with people.”
The sewage issue may be more pressing next year
Admittedly, sewage is far from the only concern on voters’ minds. Chester and Bright both say that inflation and stagnating wages are dominating local debates.
Ruth Craigie, a Labour councillor from Bideford, Devon – where beaches are regularly flooded with waste overflow – echoes this sentiment.
“People don’t like the sewage discharges, but the cost of living is drowning out most things,” she said.
It’s also difficult for municipal governments to act on the sewage issue.
“Everyone from all parties agree they want something being done about the sewage – but we don’t have a lot of power to do anything about it. It’s a central government issue,” Craigie said.
“The whole system needs upgrading. It may be more important in the general election than this year in the local elections.”
Nonetheless, the local elections will give the major parties a sense of voter mood. As public pressure mounts, every party is scrambling to appear tough on water companies.
“There has been a shift in public mood, I think,” said Hodgkinson.
“People are really angry at companies that pollute.”
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