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Regulation is a public good not a dirty word

The sewage pollution scandal shows the dangers of deregulation and weakening standards. Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth asks how present ministers can make up for past failures and reboot regulation for good.

For the full version of this article, see here.

October 2022

Liz Truss once said the government she served in as Environment Secretary would result in “Great jobs and opportunities and fantastic beaches and rivers for families to enjoy.”

That was in 2014. In 2021, people were dismayed to discover deliberate and widespread dumping of untreated sewage into our rivers, seas and beaches. 2021 alone saw 372,533 sewage pollution incidents lasting a total of 3.1 million hours in England and Wales.

That one-year snapshot shows how pollution was allowed to get out of hand for years .

In 2022’s peak August holiday season 18 of Cornwall’s beaches were off limits due to sewage. Visitor to Lincolnshire were advised to avoid beaches at Ingoldmells and near Cleethorpes and Grimsby. Brighton beach in Sussex closed for the bank holiday weekend.

Into September and sewage warnings were still being issued for beaches at Walney in Cumbria and at St Annes in Lancashire. The Environment Agency even “advised against bathing” at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Failure to listen

People are often stunned to find that the dire state of our freshwaters and bathing waters isn’t new.

Ministers cannot claim ignorance because we and others have been telling them of the problems and the consequences for years. In 2017 for example we told ministers and Ofwat, the economic regulator, that “Dealing with pollution from sewer overflows should be a top priority” given that sewage had affected 37,434 locations and 4,344 properties in England in 2015-16 alone.

MPs also knew, although some prefer to blame water companies and ignore government indolence. 268 MPs blocked sensible House of Lords proposals that would have required water companies to act immediately to end harm from sewage. Instead, most MPs backed a weak plan which means rivers and seas will still be pumped and dumped with sewage in 2050 – more than 25 years away.

Who is responsible?

Water companies are obvious targets and are rightly in the firing line for failing to invest enough to prevent pollution while paying their executives millions and shareholders billions. In 2021, water bosses pocketed £24.8 million in pay, benefits, bonuses and incentives for performance. Since water privatisation in 1989 shareholders have enjoyed a £72 billion dividend deluge.

Nice work if you can get it, and it is easy to blame water companies and forget the government’s role. Ministers cannot dodge their ultimate responsibility for setting and enforcing the rules and standards, and for allowing sewage dumping and other pollution to become the norm.

Yet even after all of this, it is still not clear that the plight of our rivers – which is just one indicator of the poor state of nature in the UK – is truly focussing ministers’ minds as they look to further scrap or weaken a range of rules designed to protect and improve our environment.

By ignoring the problem and presiding over lax regulation Britain risks regaining its 1970-80's title of being the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ earned when the government also sought to evade standards to reduce air and water pollution from road traffic, pesticides and industry.

Cutting water testing

The Environment Agency has cut its water quality testing. In 2013, it took water samples at 10,797 locations but by 2018 only 5,796 points were tested. Unsurprisingly, the Angling Trust said:

“The Environment Agency can’t say with any confidence what the state of our rivers is because they’re not monitoring them closely enough.”

In its report to MPs the National Audit Office (NAO) noted the Agency’s attendance at pollution incidents “has declined over the past five years...” Even allowing for reduced inspections during the pandemic, the Agency now only attends incidents it thinks are serious.

Cutting 'red tape'

A toothless watchdog suits those who regard regulation as a dirty word. But it is hard to see how others gain – whether anglers, bathers, fishing crews, rowers, paddle boarders or tourist-dependent areas and communities trying to bring back nature in their area.

But enough hard-line politicians, lobbyists, and what resigning PM Liz Truss has called “vested interests dressed up as think tanks” still deride regulation as ‘red tape’, push for ‘bonfires’ of regulations and for more constraints on regulators in the belief that this will see business boom without hindrance.

Politicians who like to look tough by cutting budgets and services and banishing ‘red tape’ may calculate that pollution, fewer species, and harm to habitats and health will not bother, or be noticed by, the majority. After all, the consequences of cuts and weak regulation rarely make the headlines, although sewage becoming a touchstone issue may change that.

Blanket news coverage saw politicians and regulators back-peddling to claim they ‘take the issue very seriously’ and are ‘doing all they can’ to clamp down on pollution they let happen in the first place. Ministers gave the Agency a short-term £21 million cash injection and some temporary staff for enforcement of pollution from farming and water companies from 2022 to 2025. That top-up from the 2021 Spending Review is welcome but does not make up for a decade of cuts.

Clear solutions ministers should adopt

Rather than snail’s pace action while reaching to deregulate even more, ministers must:

1. Invest in comprehensive monitoring.

    The nation needs an independent, comprehensive system of real-time, round-the-clock pollution monitoring for sewage and for the cocktail of other contaminants. Monitoring matters because it would help ministers track sewage and pollution to the source and know what harm is being done.

    That would help reduce pollution incidents so that problems are solved, avoiding the need for costly clean ups all round and helping ministers hit their own aims for a healthy water environment.

    2. Resource the regulators

    The government must restore the ability of the Environment Agency and other bodies to do their jobs properly. Cutting and constraining regulators and regulations has been a false economy which also handicaps ministers from making informed decisions based on good evidence.

    People carrying out their own water testing and other citizen science sampling has a role but is no substitute for the proper job being done by a fully functioning Environment Agency.

    3. Drop 'red tape' rhetoric

    Tough talk of ‘cutting red tape’ has nothing to do with diligent, evidence-based decision-making which is underpins sound stewardship and good governance.

    What will the new Prime Minister deliver?

    As this story about the government’s approach to the water industry demonstrates, proper regulation and good governance would avoid and prevent harm, support aims for public health and a thriving environment, and would make economic and business sense.

    Far from harming our economy, proper regulation helps avoid costly pollution, protects the public, and helps certainty and a level playing field for business. As resigning PM Liz Truss rightly said in 2014:

    “A clean, beautiful, healthy natural environment is about more jobs and greater prosperity, contributing to our long-term economic plan, our wellbeing, and our future security."

    With a leadership contest now underway, this is an opportunity for the new Prime Minister to make up for past failures and deliver these benefits, for nature and for people. 

    Paul de Zylva is Senior Analyst at Friends of the Earth. 

    Follow: @friends_earth & @pauldezylva

    The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.