Oxfordshire Liberal Democrats

The long-term causes of our sewage problems in West Oxfordshire

Charlie Maynard, our candidate for Standlake, Aston and Stanton Harcourt in elections on May 5th, lays out why we have a national sewage problem. Decades-long Tory ideology—that the market can solve everything and regulators only add red tape—has ended in disaster for our rivers and the people who live near them.

"In 2019, the Witney constituency was sixth worst of all of England’s 533 constituencies by number of hours of sewage spilled," he writes in an article published in the Witney Gazette on January 19th, 2022.

"Here’s just one local example: for more than a month from late September 2020, Stanton Harcourt sewage treatment works spilled over 28,000 tonnes of untreated sewage. Think what 28,000 tonnes of sewage looks and smells like, and the damage it can do to our environment.

So, we clearly have a big problem. To think our way out of this problem, we also have to understand how we got ourselves into it in the first place. The UK’s water companies were privatised in 1989 into 17 large regional monopolies. We are an outlier with this approach, with England being the only country in the world to have fully privatised its water system. Since 1989, these monopoly water companies have been passed from private equity firm to sovereign wealth fund, all of whom have followed their capitalist instincts, taking out huge dividends and piling on vast volumes of debt.

Thames Water now has net debt of £12.5bn. They’ve also minimised spending. This matters, as the sewage plants need funds to cover both maintenance as well as expansion in order to keep up with the increasing population. This outcome would be bad if it was a one-off; it’s a terrible result if this approach is consistently taken for more than 30 years. Adding to the mayhem are two additional factors. First, the Environment Agency, the key water quality standards watchdog, has had its budget cut by two thirds and is largely toothless. The number of prosecutions that the EA has brought dropped 86% between 2000 and 2019; yet in England in 2020, there were over 400,000 sewage spills for a total of more than three million hours. Secondly, flood events are increasing both in their severity and frequency.

So what can we do? Locally, we have to hold Thames Water to account. The Lib Dems call on Thames Water to provide us all with much clearer data on what sewage is being dumped where and when. Part of the solution is increasing the capacity of sewage plants, another is reducing the amount of groundwater going into sewage pipes. Nationally, to my mind, Dieter Helm, professor of economic policy at Oxford University, has some of the best ideas on how to solve the overall problem. Solutions could be quickly developed and implemented at a fraction of the cost that MPs have been bandying around recently with no supporting data.

We need to do better than wringing our hands, hiding under a stone and hoping not to be dragged out, which seems to be the approach both of our current MP and Government, with their repeated attempts to weaken sewage legislation. Let’s get a grip on these problems and do the work to develop solutions, both locally and nationally."

—Charlie Maynard's District Dossier, Witney Gazette, January 19th, 2022

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