MP David Warburton’s vote on sewage breaks a pledge to the Friends of the River Frome: letter to the editor

Sue Everett and Mike Bull of FoRF meeting with David Warburton MP for Somerton and Frome in January 2021

Back in January David Warburton, Conservative MP for Somerton and Frome, was happy to announce support for a a private members bill to stop water companies discharging untreated sewage into rivers. He took the trouble to write to Sue Everett of the Friends of the River Frome (FoRF) after his meeting with her and colleague Mike Bull, saying:

“I can certainly assure you that, when the Bill returns to the House of Commons for its second reading in January, I will be giving it my full support.

“Protecting our rivers and waterways is an issue of huge importance to our communities in Somerset and it’s always been of critical interest to me to address improvements to the maintenance of our waterways and also enhance flood prevention and dredging. “… must thank you, along with the Friends of the Somerset River Frome group, for the crucial work that you do for the town and its wider environment. And I am delighted that, largely thanks to your efforts, discharges into the river are now being monitored.”

David Warburton appears to have gone back on his word. We have received this letter from Mendip District Councillors articulating their dismay:

One of the worst things to do in politics is to pledge to do something and then do the exact opposite. Our current Conservative MP for Somerton and Frome is being accused of doing just that after he helped the Government defeat a proposed legal duty on water companies to end sewage pollution, despite promising to support such a law.

On 20th October 2021, MPs considered several House of Lords’ amendments to the Environment Bill, including amendment 45 which amongst other things would have imposed a legal duty on water companies to ‘take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows’ and to ‘demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges’. This would have put into effect the core, primary clause of Philip Dunne MP’s Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill which our MP pledged to support on 14 January, after meeting campaigners from the Friends of the River Frome and listening to their concerns.

Sewage pollution threatens our health and environment. Swimming in sewage-polluted water risks gastroenteritis, ear, skin, nose and throat infections, hepatitis and E-coli. There are over 21,000 combined sewer overflows in England and Wales, with 400,000 discharges last year alone. Only 14% of our rivers meet good ecological standards, and the UK has a worse record for bathing water quality than every EU country. Action is clearly needed. Ending sewage pollution from our sewerage system will take time, money and planning, but a new legal duty would make the privatised water industry treat the issue much more seriously, requiring them to take reasonable and practical action to progressively eliminate sewage pollution.

In the debate our MP remained silent, but several Conservative, Labour, Green and Lib Dem MPs argued strongly for a legal duty. Government Ministers argued it was ‘unnecessary’ given the half-measures they were agreeing to (more targets, plans, monitoring and reporting), and told their MPs to vote down the legal duty. Most did, but 22 Tory MPs voted with the opposition. The Government has since been accused of looking after water companies’ profits rather than the nation’s water quality.

Unlike many of our rivers, it is crystal clear that our Conservative MP has voted to stop water companies having a legal duty to stop polluting British rivers and coasts with sewage, despite clearly promising that he would support such a law. He needs to apologise to the Friends of the River Frome and everyone else who wants to end sewage pollution.

What can you do? Please support the campaigns to end sewage pollution by Surfers Against Sewage, the Rivers Trust, the Friends of the River Frome and others. As the issue is likely to come back to the Commons again shortly, please politely write to your MP and let him know what you think – he may have another chance to do the right thing and keep his promise next time.

Adam Boyden, Damon Hooton, Richard Pinnock, Janine Nash, Drew Gardner, Helen Sprawson-White and Barry O’Leary, Mendip District Councillors (Liberal Democrats)