Ongoing sewage in rivers debate

Some important events this week in the ongoing Sewage in Rivers Debate have given rise to a fundamental question - ‘who is on the level and who is bending the truth?’ It can’t all be true!

First up was the House of Commons debate on Tuesday (April 25). The Conservatives said they are tackling the problems of sewage discharges neglected under Labour. While Labour countered that when they left office in 2010, the Environment Agency reported our rivers were the cleanest at any time since before the Industrial Revolution. Poles apart!

What’s not in doubt, though, is the tactics of the Conservatives in the debate. Labour’s Jim McMahon presented a Private Members’ Bill calling for legally binding sewage reduction targets, automatic fines, etc. and included a set of legal requirements which would set a clear path for it to be set into law. What’s not to like? The Conservatives however tabled an amendment stripping out the legal requirements part, thus downgrading a Bill full of desirable outcomes into a non-binding collection of useless words. They had the numbers to carry the amendment then force a vote. The Opposition were forced to abstain as they could neither vote for a toothless motion nor vote against a motion they had originally proposed. This prompted the Conservatives to claim the moral high ground and accuse Labour of not voting for their own Bill and therefore supporting the pollutors.

That was utter deception - truth bent double - political power games in action - manipulation not democracy - dirty politics. Every Conservative who voted for it should feel thoroughly ashamed, including our MP Anthony Mangnall. This was not for the benefit of the country but to block Labour at all costs - petty one-upmanship. To use amendments like this has become common practice and is a disgrace to democracy. 

Next up is the Open Meeting in Totnes, at the Civic Hall, hosted by Anthony and featuring a panel of South West Water employees facing questions from a packed, and often angry, hall. A well informed audience posed many well researched questions to the panel and challenged the answers with facts, figures and strong arguments. A major issue was lack of investment in infrastructure set against excessive bonuses and dividends paid out to shareholders and senior management. A member of the audience pointed out that SWW have drawn out so much in profits to shareholders and senior management that they have reinvested very little into infrastructure and now customers are paying high bills to compensate. He said that if he had invested so little in his business he would still be pushing a wheelbarrow.

 Anthony Mangnall  positioned himself as the constituents’ champion.  However he was challenged on government defunding of the Environment Agency leading to a huge reduction in prosecutions - which fell from almost 800 in 2007-08 under the previous Labour government to just 16  prosecutions (out of 827 reported infringements) in 2021-22 under the Conservatives. There is little sign of acceptance of that fact from Anthony or any other Conservatives, and still less sign of any contrition. No wonder water companies feel emboldened to make illegal discharges.

Was this meeting a genuine attempt by SWW to engage, or simply a PR exercise? Have people really had a say - has anything really changed? As one attendee put it ‘Anthony making informal requests or even asking tough questions of junior management (where was the CEO?) is no substitute for proper legislation.’ Another said ‘it didn’t leave me feeling substantial change is on the way, or that our rivers are anywhere near safe!’.

It’s disturbing that the SWW team said there is no intention for CEOs to forgo bonuses or to provide transparency over  investment levels, and that SWW are doing everything that the government is asking them to do (a clear sign that because legislation has been weakened the Government is not asking them to do anything like enough). Clearly substantial change is not on the way, and our rivers are nowhere near safe anytime soon under SWW, this Conservative Government and Anthony Mangnall MP!

Peter Scott

South Brent