The realities of the impact of raw sewage on Surrey’s wildlife and homes have been laid bare after the furore over MPs voting down an amendment to the Environment Bill.
Six Surrey MPs voted down an amendment to stop private water companies from dumping raw sewage into UK rivers to the disgust of some constituents.
In the same week that the country was incensed that the amendment was opposed, a Surrey boat owner said she has seen first hand the impacts of sewage on our rivers with wildlife disappearing in a short space of time.
And homeowners in Fetcham saw their properties flooded by raw sewage in an example of how the current infrastructure is not coping.
Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove and Chris Grayling did not vote.
The backlash was so great nationally, the Government has since been forced into a U-turn on the issue, announcing on Tuesday the Bill “will be further strengthened” with “a duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows”.
Ms Coutinho claims she wants to “preserve the environment” and will host a Surrey-wide virtual climate change summit on Thursday (October 28).
She will be joined by Mr Grayling, Mr Hunt, Mr Spencer, Mr Gove and Woking MP Jonathan Lord – the only one of Surrey’s 11 Conservative MPs that did not toe the party line, instead attempting to bar water companies from putting untreated water into British rivers.
Defending her decision on social media following a backlash from constituents, Ms Coutinho said the Bill was “already putting in many new duties” on the government, water companies and Environment Agency “on this issue”.
Her other reason came down to money.
“I spoke to colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee who are holding an inquiry with the water chiefs at the moment and to the agencies and discovered that the expected cost could be as much as £150 billion which could be passed on to customers,” she said.
“It is a complicated and expensive problem to update our sewers, and whilst it needs to be done, I think rather than giving them free rein on how to do it, it would be good to see the plans water companies will put in place so the trade offs and ramifications for residents can be scrutinised and then we can put further measures in place if needed.”
Mrs Richardson added that the amendment seeking to ban all sewage into water courses was not possible with current infrastructure as it must go somewhere, which must now be decided upon.
She continued: “I’m delighted that the government has come forward to bolster the bill by making it a duty of water companies to secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.”
How sewage is affecting Surrey’s rivers
The vote comes after figures from The Rivers Trust revealed raw sewage flowed into Surrey’s rivers for more than 19,800 hours last year, with almost 1,900 raw sewage overflow spills from treatment plants here.
However, Sir Paul does not think there are many overflows into Surrey rivers and when there are, puts this down to extreme but rare weather events.
He said: “I hope the few climate change sceptics take note. The amendment in question was not only redundant, it was also ill-conceived.
“The UK’s sewage systems work by allowing discharges in extreme rainfall to prevent sewage flooding.
“This amendment would have rendered the majority of our sewage infrastructure unworkable and illegal to operate in the normal way. This would have meant with no other legal option available, sewage being discharged onto pavements, fields and parks.”
Boat owner says rivers are being devastated
Jacqui Jones has lived on a river boat in Runnymede for 40 years, and insists she has seen the gradual decline of wildlife over this time thanks to sewage releases.
She says river birds she used to enjoy looking at have disappeared, while water reeds by her home have all died in the past year.
She said flooding is getting “progressively worse each year”.
“With all this extra fluid coming into the river, on a river already flooded, [it] does not help people like me,” she said.
“The Thames by Laleham is brown now, but this time of year it should give a grey colour from the silt. I used to have a kingfisher by my jetty waiting patiently for fish, but he’s no longer here now the reeds and fish have completely gone. It is soul destroying.
“People innocently think the bleach they use to clean toilets will be treated by the sewage firms to make it safe, not put it into our water where people swim and row.
“Laleham park gets hundreds of people to swim and sunbathe in the summer.”
Miss Jones said both Phillip Hammond and Dr Ben Spencer have claimed to care, but suggests their actions in the vote indicate otherwise.
Similarly, aggrieved residents in Fetcham were blighted by another bout of sewage flooding last week but unlike on previous occasions, this time it damaged homes.
Nicholas Wrobel lives on The Glade which along with neighbouring Kennel Lane, has been badly affected four times in the past three months. The area in question is much higher up than the River Mole.
He has raised the issue with the relevant authorities numerous times over the past 29 years, but says it normally falls on deaf ears.
He noted: “We first had trouble in 1992 but did not get anywhere when trying to solve it, but it became clear then that there are many people responsible for many different things.
“There was another major episode 10 years ago, and I managed to get all parties here for several meetings to discuss responsibility and what was going to happen going forward.
“Surrey County Council, Mole Valley and Thames Water all committed to doing something.
“Thames Water found roots from oak trees and cracked pipes down the sewers beneath us, and made a commitment to line those pipes because the cast iron had cracked.
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“They also committed to inspect the pipes every year, and report back the findings. Have they done so? No.”
Mr Wrobel insists flooding on their road usually occurs in the depth of winter, so it was worrying when it arrived in summer and autumn this year.
He believes it is a disgrace that repeated sewage spills are affecting houses, after decades of empty promises being made.
Robin Cooper lives in Dorking, where the sewage treatment work overflowed 118 times in 2020.
He thinks a possible solution would be putting borders up by rivers, and not letting cattle go near streams.
A Thames Water spokesperson told us: “Our aim will always be to try and do the right thing for our rivers and for the communities who love and value them.
“By working with local partners we are actively listening to our customers, who want us to do more.
“Our planned investment in our sewer network and upgrading sewage treatment works across our region will help improve the situation.
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“It’s our view that discharges of untreated sewage are simply unacceptable, even when they are legally permitted, and we will work with the government, Ofwat and the Environment Agency to accelerate work to stop them being necessary.
“We have a long way to go, we certainly can’t do it on our own – but the ambition is clear.”
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