Thank you Ms Elliott, and it is a pleasure to be speaking under your chairmanship.
I strongly welcome this debate secured by my constituency neighbour and Honourable Friend the Member of Parliament for Bexhill and Battle who has already spoken passionately and persuasively about the sewage discharge issues that local people in East Sussex face, and the responsibilities of the Government, water companies, Highways and the Environment Agency in dealing with them.
The attendance here today by so many other Honourable Members is testament to both the importance and wide-ranging impact of such issues and, before I speak to the notable action already being taken to tackle them, I wish to put on record the deepfelt frustrations felt by many residents in Hastings and Rye.
These frustrations at all too frequent sewage discharges are ones that I feel keenly too, and I am grateful to those constituents of mine who have written to me ahead of this debate to share their thoughts on it. This follows many an email, telephone call and conversation about these issues – both in their local impact and national ramifications – as well.
The public, including residents of Hastings and Rye, rightly expect clean rivers and seas for the enjoyment of all and recent heightened concern over storm overflows demonstrates that this expectation has not yet been properly met.
Recent extreme weather patterns across the country have thrown this situation into even greater relief with scorched, impermeable earth leading to greater use of such overflows on an increasingly regular basis.
What was once a last resort has become an all too frequent and much relied upon method used by water companies to the detriment of our marine and aquatic environments, and action is righty demanded.
It is the nature of this action, however, which is the greatest source of contention and, whilst some choose to try and use the issue to score political points. This Government has taken extensive steps to ensure that we have clean water steps, in Hastings and Rye – with a fully costed and affordable plan.
It is, after all, measures introduced by a Conservative-led Government that mean the true extent of this issue is now better understood and comprehensive measures put in place.
Prior to my election in 2019, I had the pleasure of representing a ward in my constituency as a Councillor – Eastern Rother – which is where I began grappling with the issue of sewage discharges and the real impacts it has on residents. This is especially the case in coastal communities where tourism is of paramount importance to local economies.
Whilst I urge the Government to do what is can to ramp-up the pace of change, it is easy to play student politics with an issue such as this, shouting and demanding action without a real plan. I have found working with all stakeholders – local, regional and national – is a prerequisite to progress.
Engagement is something that I have continued to place a great importance on since, and this includes in relation to sewage discharges where I discuss the concerns of my residents directly with representatives of Southern Water, the Environment Agency and other relevant organisations on a regular basis.
Demonising them may be easy and politically expedient for some in the short term for personal gain but this is a game that I – and I know Government Ministers – refuse to partake in.
Through speaking with such organisations, I am able to ensure that the frustrations of local residents are heard, taken into account and acted upon where possible, and it also provides a platform to discuss local solutions, which are key. We can all do our bit in helping to reduce water surface – rainwater – from entering the foul sewage pipes, as well as what we put down our pipes: cooking fat, wet wipes etc.
Local solutions can include, for example, a greater use of nature-based solutions to reduce water surface runoff; water attenuation ponds – ‘swales‘, planting trees, household water butts, permeable paving, grey water storage tanks in new development and so on.
It is local solutions put into practice by all stakeholders that will, alongside central Government action, begin to make a real, positive and long-lasting difference to being better able to reduce the reliance on sewage discharges.
Speaking of which, and whilst a number of colleagues here have already spoken to the Government action being taken, I wish to highlight its genuinely unprecedented scope and predicted impact.
It has to be said that since privatisation, over £140 billion has been invested by water companies in infrastructure. Around two thirds of our beaches are classed as good or excellent for water quality – up from one third pre-privatisation. The private sector provided solutions.
I have already alluded to the fact that the use of sewage discharges is a lawful measure used for decades, at times of increased rainfall. It is the improved monitoring brought in by a Conservative Government which has highlighted the increased frequency of this ‘safety valve’ and provided the evidence upon which the Government is acting on.
The improved monitoring has also increased awareness in the public, who have quite rightly vocalised their concerns. It is absolutely right that we have all listened to these concerns – and acted upon them to take real action in a responsible and cost-effective way. What is not right, it the deliberate misrepresentation of action taken by Conservative MPs and the Government.
Following the passing into law of the Environment Act 2021 – a piece of legislation I was proud to speak in support of at the time – a storm overflows discharge reduction plan has now been published.
This sets out progressive targets that water companies must achieve including that, by 2035, all storm overflows discharging into or near designated bathing water sites must be improved.
75% of overflows discharging into high priority nature sites will have to improve by 2035 as well and, by 2050, this will rightly apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by the targets, regardless of location.
As I have said, the public rightly expect clean and healthy rivers and seas and I am glad that the Government is taking action to make this a reality.
Whilst it cannot be done overnight as fiscal realities and the current pressures on related infrastructure must be taken into account, progress is being made – will continue to be made in the future – and I will always ensure the voices of my constituents are heard by Ministers on this crucial matter.