Boris Johnson U-turns on water companies discharging raw sewage

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The UK’s ageing sewage system is unable to deal with heavy rain – and the overflow has got to go somewhere (Picture: Shutterstock)

The government has backed down after it blocked a move to stop water companies pumping raw sewage into rivers and seas.

Tory MPs were ordered to vote against an amendment to the Environment Bill which would have placed legal obligations on private firms to end the practice.

Untreated sewage can be released into waterways when heavy rainfall threatens to inundate sewerage systems, which can result in flooding in homes.

The announcement came just hours after Downing Street had defended the decision to whip against last week’s amendment.

Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said ending the use of overflows would cost £150bn to bill payers and said it was ‘not right to sign a blank cheque on behalf of customers’.

Now the environment department has said it will introduce a new element to the bill to reduce the practice after a defeat in the House of Lords.

Labour said it ‘should not have taken a public outcry for this government to take the scandal of raw sewage being discharged into our rivers seriously’.

Environment secretary George Eustice has admitted that the government’s proposed change to the Environment Bill will still result in rising household water bills.

Campaigners have called on the government to force water companies, which generate millions in profits, to take action (Picture: PA)

In comments to broadcasters, Mr Eustice signalled that the water sector would have five years to show progress on the matter, but that bills would have to increase to fund infrastructure improvements.

The cabinet minister said: ‘We’ve been very clear that we want to see a reduction in these storm overflows over the next five-year period of the water pricing plan.

‘That will need to be funded and will lead to some increases in water bills to fund that.’

His department has previously said it is ‘unacceptable’ water companies discharged raw sewage 400,000 times last year alone.

Mr Eustice told reporters a feasibility study would be carried out on eradicating overflows entirely, a project which would require significant new infrastructure and could cost up to £600bn.

The government said any move to end the use of over flows will require billions of pounds worth of new infrastructure (Picture: Shutterstock)

A legal obligation for water companies to reduce the amount of sewage they release into the water will be imposed.

In a statement published separately, he said Defra’s announcement would see its strategy to the watchdog Ofwat about ‘progressively reducing discharge of sewage from storm overflows’ put ‘on a statutory footing’.

Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Luke Pollard, said: ‘Having spent the past few days defending their position, this screeching U-turn will do little to convince the public that the health of our rivers, rather than the health of Conservative polling, is at the forefront of ministers’ minds.

‘The government still has no clear plan and no grip on the issue of raw sewage being pumped into our seas and rivers.’

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