Debates between Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 21st Jun 2021
Environment Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage & Committee stage

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Harries of Pentregarth and Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville
Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I strongly support what the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has said and many important points made by other Peers. I have only one point to make on top of the others: there has been no real improvement for so long now—certainly, not very much since 2016. In 2020, only 40% of waterways were classified as being in good health—meaning as close to their natural state as possible.

We all know that a major cause of this is sewage. In 2020, raw sewage was discharged more than 400,000 times over a period of 3 million hours, and this water, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has claimed, brings huge quantities of microplastics as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, sewage is not the only cause: some 40% comes from run-off from agricultural industries.

The point is that, since legislation was passed and the Environment Agency has been in charge and responsible for it, there has been no real improvement. This may be due to lack of proper funding, but the fact is that it has not been able to bring about any real change. We now have the worst quality in Europe, with England comparing very badly with Scotland, where 65.7% of surface water bodies are in good health. We know this—it has been repeated time and again, and the environmental Ministers acknowledge it.

The question is: how can we ensure that real change takes place soon? Including Amendment 4 is where we must start in ensuring that good quality water is a goal that we fully intend to achieve. We must use this Bill to ensure that we achieve it.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it is a pleasure to be speaking to this amendment moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. During the past two years, many of your Lordships have raised the issue of the quality of the water in many of our iconic rivers and given very graphic examples of where pollution has been discharged, untreated, into our waterways. We have heard about chicken manure being discharged into the River Wye, previously one of the most beautiful rivers on our island. At Second Reading, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, reminded us about the discharge of raw sewage into rivers. As one of her first duties, the newly elected MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green MP, has visited the River Chess to hear from the local action group about the pollution of it.

During lockdown, with local authority swimming pools closed to the public, those who were able took to what has become known as wild swimming in the sea and rivers. I am assured that this is extremely invigorating and refreshing, but probably not so if you are encountering severe pollution on the scale that we have heard of from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. Biodiversity is severely affected by the pollution in our rivers.

The treatment of sewage is the responsibility of the sewerage and water authorities. It is not sufficient for them to claim that new housing developments have overwhelmed their treatment plants and they have no choice but to discharge sewage into our rivers and sea. We have heard recently of the public disquiet about the Government’s proposals to change the planning laws. Often, statutory consultees respond to local authorities with “no comment”, but often they do not respond at all. Perhaps this is an issue of resources, with Defra cuts to the Environment Agency filtering down to the front line. The water authorities should be obliged to respond to consultation on proposed housing developments, especially where there is insufficient capacity in existing treatment plants to cope with the current, never mind the future, demand.

All noble Lords taking part in this debate have expressed concern on the issue of water quality. The Government must take it seriously if we are to restore the quality of the water in our rivers to enable biodiversity to increase, even if it is unlikely ever to reach its former levels. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and others have flagged, we will return to this in later amendments. This is a very serious matter, as my noble friend Lord Teverson and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, and we fully support the comments of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, in moving this amendment and look forward to the Minister’s response.