Anna Firth – 2022 Speech on Ofwat

The speech made by Anna Firth, the Conservative MP for Southend West, in the House of Commons on 9 June 2022.

I start by welcoming the Government’s strategic policy statement for Ofwat. This is clearly an important step in the right direction. Water companies in this country desperately need to change. The current safeguards on water companies are simply not good enough. The aspect that I would like to focus on today is the real need for water companies to improve their day-to-day environmental performance and enhance water quality.

In Southend, we have seven miles of award-winning beaches. Westcliff and Chalkwell already boast blue flag, five star status and attract more than 7 million visitors every year, so having clean water off our beaches is vital for our new city to thrive and prosper. Of course, it is not just in the summer months that the water is used. It is now used all year round and we have famous groups of female swimmers such as the Bluetits Chill Swimmers.

Sadly, Anglian Water is simply not doing enough. It continues to make use of Victorian sewer systems and uses storm overflows to dump raw sewage into the estuary far too often. Last year in Southend, raw sewage was pumped into the sea 48 times for more than 251 hours. That is the equivalent of more than 10 days. That does not include the sewage dumped further upstream, which also impacts on Southend.

One storm overflow in Canvey spilled 121 times for a total of 23 days, and one in Dagenham spilled for the equivalent of an outrageous 72 days. It is shocking that 39 million tonnes of sewage are dumped into the Thames every year. That is the equivalent of 3 million London buses. This dumping of raw sewage is having a disastrous effect on our environment, with 98% of water sampled by Thames River Watch last year found to contain traces of coliform bacteria caused by the presence of faeces in the water.

For 1,000 years, Southend West has been home to a thriving fishing industry. Pumping sewage into the water could lead to E. coli in our shellfish, which would be absolutely devastating for the Southend cockle industry. I welcome the fact that the Government have placed a clear duty on water companies to progressively reduce the use and impact of storm overflows; have now asked water companies to clearly demonstrate how they are going about that; and are calling for water companies to be far more transparent in reporting when discharges do occur.

In particular, I greatly welcome the fact that, under the Environment Act, water companies will now be required to monitor the water quality both upstream and downstream of storm overflows in real time, all the time—instead of just between May and September as they do at the moment. There should, obviously, be real punishments for companies that consistently fail to monitor water quality levels or meet targets.

We must completely end the use of storm overflows in this country. The Government have set a target of zero serious pollution incidents by 2030. Any use of storm overflows leading to sewage discharge should count as a serious pollution incident. There can be no excuse for pumping raw sewage into our waterways, and any company guilty of using them in that way must face real and heavy punishments.

However, we must also tackle the root causes of sewage discharges. A good place to start would be to ban non-flushable wet wipes. These block pipes, and seriously contribute to the use of storm overflows. The Conservative Environment Network is calling for all manufacturers to be obliged to follow Water UK’s “Fine to Flush” standard for wipes, which means that they do not contain plastic and they break down quickly in our sewers.

Finally, punishments on water companies should not increase the cost to the consumer; they must fall instead on the company bosses. A good place to start would be to ban bonuses for company directors whose water companies do not meet their targets. It is not acceptable that last year, the chief executive officer of Anglian Water received an extraordinary £2,074,647 in pay and bonuses—up 62% on the previous year, despite the company’s profits falling by 2% and the outrageous levels of sewage being pumped into our waterways.

Sir Charles Walker

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Anna Firth

I have almost finished.

Sir Charles Walker

That is fine; I will intervene now. What my hon. Friend is suggesting, I think rightly, is that those environmental targets placed on water companies should trump financial targets. If that is what she is suggesting, I think she would have the support of the House this evening.

Anna Firth

Absolutely correct. I thank my hon. Friend, but I will still conclude.

In conclusion, I welcome the steps that the Government are taking to improve our waterways. It must now be the absolute priority of the water companies to put those into practice, stop pumping sewage into our rivers and permanently improve the quality of our water.