Expert reaction to Environmental Audit Committee report on Water Quality in Rivers

“We need to get real. This problem has arisen because of chronic, long-term under investment in sewers, water quality monitoring, and regulation. It will take billions of pounds over decades to fix, which society has to pay for. This is everyone’s responsibility to solve. 

“We can’t just keep dumping the costs on nature, because it can only take so much punishment before it breaks, with dead rivers and water that kills. I don’t want to live in that country.” Prof Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Reading

Owl really doesn’t need to add anything to this catalogue of expert comments:  January 13, 2022

A report on the water quality in UK rivers has been published by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

Dr Veronica Edmonds-Brown, senior lecturer in aquatic ecology from the University of Hertfordshire, said:

“Water companies and communities are dealing with a lack of infrastructure. Even though more housing is being built, these developments are connected to existing systems which are mostly of Victorian origin and over capacity. New developments increase local surface run off by 8 – 18% and this must go somewhere. If more housing is to be built, more money needs to be spent on infrastructure. Not doing so will lead to more flooding events, like we saw in London last summer.

“The bodies responsible for our drainage systems, drainage boards, local authorities and water companies all have different priorities, and action taken against pollution is often not joined up. Misconnections, where wastewater drains into the surface water drains instead of the sewage pipes, were not mentioned in the report and it is a big problem, particularly for urban rivers. Plumbing sewage and black wastewater into surface water drains is much more common than is acknowledged and difficult to rectify. Bacteria is often used to find misconnection hotspots, but these are not picked up unless they are looked for. Unlike beaches, bacteria testing in rivers is only done if there is concern, not as routine.

“There are several solutions to improve the water quality of our rivers. A national capital project is needed to improve drainage and sewage infrastructure in new developments. All new builds should also be checked for misconnections, and all homeowners should be legally responsible for assessing misconnections before selling the property. There should also be an over-arching body that deals with drainage and can work alongside different authorities. And finally, bacteria testing should be routine for rivers like bathing beaches.”

Dr Eulyn Pagaling, environmental microbiologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, said:

“We agree with the conclusions from the Environmental Audit Committee on the water quality of English rivers and agree with the recommendations for improving the state of these aquatic environments. Amongst the issues highlighted was the prevalence of emerging contaminants, including persistent chemical pollutants, microplastics and antimicrobial resistance.

“Antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest challenges we face today, and we could potentially enter a post-antibiotic era where minor infections can have serious health consequences. Microplastics and chemical pollutants exacerbate this risk by enhancing the prevalence of resistant microbes. Rivers act as conduits of these biological and chemical pollutants, and therefore can have far reaching impacts on the environment and public health. Through regular monitoring, a targeted strategy for reducing these pollutants in the environment can be created.

“We welcome the report highlighting the need for government, regulators and the water industry to come together to restore these aquatic environments that have been neglected for far too long.”

Prof Kate Heppell (Chilterns Chalk Streams Project/Queen Mary University of London) & Dr Leon Barron (MRC Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London) said:

“’Citizen Science’ can play a critical role in developing our knowledge and response to chemical pollution. For example, as part of Thames Water’s Smarter Water Catchments initiative academics, industry, local government, conservation bodies, like the Chilterns Chalk Streams Project, and residents are combining their skills to develop new approaches to monitor chemicals of emerging concern in the River Chess. If scaled up, such collaborations could contribute to a sustainable UK-wide survey of emerging pollutants recommended by the Environmental Audit Committee report which we consider both timely and necessary.”

Prof Rick Stafford, British Ecological Society Policy Committee Chair and Bournemouth University, said:

“Given the previous major improvement in water quality and ecological health of UK rivers in the 1990s and 2000s, it is sad to see these improvements being undone.  Sewage and agricultural waste not only cause disease, but disrupt the nutrient dynamics of rivers, causing excess algae and harming biodiversity.   Poor water quality can also greatly impact many charismatic river species, including salmon and otters, which have only recently recovered in many UK rivers.”

Prof Iwan Jones, Head of the River Communities Group at Queen Mary University of London, said:

“We welcome the report from the Environmental Audit Committee, and their concerns about the condition of UK rivers. Whilst we strongly support more robust monitoring of the condition of our rivers, the responsibility for addressing the issues raise lies across the whole of society, from individuals to industry and government. We all need to consider the waste we make, how we deal with it, and the impact is it having.”

Prof David Slater, Director of risk management and sustainability consultancy Cambrensis, said:

“A very thorough, helpful, accurate and long overdue report, which needs urgently to be addressed. It is not a surprise, as the issue has been a concern and getting worse for at least 100 years.

“At the turn of the 20th century, waterworks were built and operated privately.  But from the 1970’s onwards, water was formally recognised as a public health necessity and public sector Regional Water Authorities (River basin Management Boards) were established and run by Local Authorities. But underfunded and under invested in by successive governments, there was no improvement, rather a steady decline in water quality.

“When in the 80s the EU introduced stricter legislation for water and prosecuted the UK for noncompliance, the estimated costs of compliance were considered unaffordable, then of the order of £25-30 billion. The quick fix was to privatise the problem and leave the solution to the River Basin Management bodies, which became the 10 largely private equity owned companies we see today.

“All the extra river management duties – pollution regulation, flood defence, drainage, conservation, etc. – were transferred to a new body, the National Rivers Authority.  So, rather than a traditional independent regulator, the water quality enforcement was diluted and left with the people used to marking their own homework.  This “light touch” tentative approach was a source of frustration to the professional regulators that were subsumed into the NRA when the current successor body, the Environment Agency, was formed in the 90’s.  Admittedly there are major challenges and problems with upgrading the infrastructure, such as the combined sewage outfalls (CSO’s), which seem to be regarded as an insoluble problem and are responsible for the bulk of the largely unenforced, illegal discharges into rivers and the sea.

“In contrast Tap water quality was assigned to a traditional small, effective professional inspectorate which has been quietly efficient (in costs and performance).

“So, what we are seeing now is the result of (tolerated) underfunding of the infrastructure by the companies and increasingly underfunded and underpowered (weak by design?) regulation. No surprise then – we have a major problem with our water quality.  What took us so long to recognise it officially?”

Prof Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Reading, said:

“I welcome this report which provides a scathing snapshot of the state of the water quality in England’s rivers. I am appalled that we have reached a point where every single river in the country is considered dangerously polluted by chemicals.

“This report highlights the scale of the problem and makes a useful recommendation that the government, water companies and other agencies come together to take every action possible to clean up our dirty rivers.

“Fundamentally this is a question of long-term investment in infrastructure, which means spending cash.  It is understandable that the committee isn’t making this their number one priority, because asking the government for more money tends to lead to a dismissive wave from the Treasury. Collaboration is fine but will mean nothing without investment.

“We need to get real. This problem has arisen because of chronic, long-term under investment in sewers, water quality monitoring, and regulation. It will take billions of pounds over decades to fix, which society has to pay for. This is everyone’s responsibility to solve. 

“We can’t just keep dumping the costs on nature, because it can only take so much punishment before it breaks, with dead rivers and water that kills. I don’t want to live in that country.”

Prof Paul Withers, Professor of Catchment Biogeochemistry at Lancaster University, said:

“It’s very reassuring to see that the report has highlighted and endorsed the need for every catchment to have a nutrient budget to allow targeting of appropriate and effective solutions to tackling nutrient pollution, and for the current outdated, inadequate and under-resourced water quality monitoring programmes to be greatly improved not only to help identify pollution sources better, but also critically to monitor future progress towards healthier rivers and our future water security.”

Prof Nigel Watson, Professor of Geography and Environmental Management, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, said:

“The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry is the most comprehensive and in-depth investigation into river water quality for many years. The final report presents clear and alarming evidence of insufficient investment, ineffective monitoring, inadequate reporting, coupled with weak regulation and enforcement. All of this points to an urgent need for a major shake-up and re-think of the water sector, alongside stronger action to tackle pollution from farming and from highways.

“Early progress in the 1990s following water privatisation has clearly not been maintained. We now have a situation where almost every river in England is degraded by cocktails of untreated or partially treated sewage, agricultural waste, plastics and persistent chemicals.

“The risks to public health and to wildlife from poor water quality are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Discharges of untreated sewage have become increasingly commonplace as a result of more frequent intense rainfall and storm events, despite those discharges only being permitted by law in exceptional circumstances. People spending more time outdoors, and the growing popularity of wild swimming, have helped to bring these issues to public and political attention.

“The EAC report sets out some clear and very welcome recommendations, including the enhancement of catchment partnerships, the use of technology to enhance water quality monitoring, better reporting and transparency, and more stringent economic and environmental regulation of water companies, and re-direction of agricultural support towards the environment. All of this is going to cost money, and the critical question now is how much of that should come from water customers, company shareholders, and public taxation.”  

Prof Paul Kay, Professor of Water Science at the University of Leeds, said:

“I think the report represents a fair and robust analysis of the water quality of England’s rivers. I always find that the EAC does a very good job.

“General interest in river quality appears to have increased in the last few years, perhaps as a result of failing to meet Water Framework Directive objectives so spectacularly, but these problems have existed for many years. Water quality has improved a lot since the pollution caused by the industrial revolution but over recent decades we have taken few effective steps to keep on improving water quality. For instance, we have known about combined sewer overflows and diffuse agricultural pollution for a long time but have failed to do anything effective in response. With a growing population and ever increasing consumption of resources and generation of waste the situation is only likely to get worse if left unchecked.  

“Rivers are not in a terrible state but could be improved. Things such as fish kills are not uncommon and I certainly wouldn’t swim in England’s rivers below the very headwaters due to chemical and bacterial pollution. Limiting discharge of raw sewage by sewer overflows is key as is reducing diffuse agricultural pollution. Urban diffuse pollution could also be reduced. We all have a role to play though; so long as we keep consuming as we are (e.g. production of masses of relatively cheap food, lots of meat consumption, using water without thinking, new housing, more and more cars etc etc) it will be difficult to see changes. We also need a government which takes environmental protection seriously and I don’t see that at the moment – see chronic underfunding of the Environment Agency and the shambolic creation of the Environmental Land Management Scheme for instance.”

Declared interests

Prof Paul Withers: “was a contributor to the report.”

Prof Nigel Watson: “appeared as an expert witness at the EAC inquiry on March 10, 2021.”

Prof Iwan Jones: “Action on plastics is being informed by research at Queen Mary University of London, helping to determine the risks involved, monitoring methods and appropriate actions to help address this emerging issue.  Iwan Jones submitted evidence for this report.”

Private hospital sector could earn up to £90m a month being on standby for NHS

Private hospitals could earn up to £90 million a month for being on standby to help the NHS in England as it grapples with Omicron over the next three months. 

The three-month agreement sees private healthcare staff and facilities put on standby to support the NHS should Covid cause unsustainable levels of hospital admissions or staff absences.

When the deal was announced on Monday, health officials did not disclose the sum to be paid to the independent sector.

But it has since emerged that the private hospitals will earn a minimum of between £75 million and £90 million per month, which they will receive upfront.

This could reach up to £175 million per month, depending on the level of services used.

A letter from NHS England boss Amanda Pritchard to Health Secretary Sajid Javid states that the deal comes with a “minimum income guarantee”.

“We estimate that value based on current information at between £75-90 million a month,” the letter states.

“However, in the event that any system requires surge arrangements to be put in place, the cost recovery arrangements then applicable will be significantly more expensive at around £175 million a month.”

Ms Pritchard points out that this is, on a per bed basis, “significantly more expensive than the equivalent cost of an NHS site with much less certainty on the potential staffed capacity.”

Highlighting the letter at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee MP Meg Hillier said: “(This) is a very expensive proposal.

“It is proposing in order for the independent private sector providers to be ready to stand up at a moment’s notice – seven days – that the cost would be between £75 to £90 million pounds a month based on current information.”

Ms Hillier, chair of the Committee, asked: “Are you content with this very large expense taxpayers being exposed to?”

Sir Chris Wormald, permanent Secretary to the Department of Health and Social Care, said that he was “content the decisions had been made properly”.

Ms Hillier continued: “There is a very big liability there for the taxpayer. Nightingale hospitals were stood down and a not all of the private sector capacity was used last time.”

She added: “The key thing is this is a ministerial direction on an issue we have now been dealing with for two years… it is a minimum income guarantee of between £75 and £90 million a month, which will double if its actually used.

“Why is it such an emergency now? Surely this sort of planning could have happened ahead of time.”

Sir Chris referred to the new Omicron variant but Ms Hillier interrupted him adding: “But we knew from the beginning of the pandemic, variants were talked about right back in March 2020.

“The question is, why wasn’t there a better plan in place that avoids having to pay a minimum income guarantee of that level to the private sector whether or not they deliver?

“Surely by now we’d have got into a better place of negotiation to make sure that we can deliver that extra surge capacity at a lower costs to the tax payer and not do it as an emergency?”

Sir Chris replied: “We have in this case a surge that has the risk of having very severe consequences for the NHS and this is one of the mitigations.”

Bereaved daughter shuns Boris apology

“They did not care. They have never cared. They only care about themselves, and particularly the prime minister only cares about what he can get away with. Until he is caught out, he won’t admit anything.”

Edward Oldfield 

A daughter whose father died in a care home early in the pandemic has refused to accept the Prime Minister’s apology over the Downing Street lockdown party.

Dr Cathy Gardner, from Sidmouth, is challenging the government’s handling of the pandemic, arguing that it failed to protect care home residents.

Dr Gardner’s father Michael Gibson died aged 88 in April 2020. His death certificate says the cause was “probable Covid” as he had not been tested.

At that time, elderly patients were sent into care homes from hospital without being tested, leading to thousands of deaths.

Dr Gardner said she had watched Boris Johnson’s statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday lunchtime.

The East Devon councillor said: “I don’t accept an apology from him. That does not go anywhere near far enough.

“Doing something that he knew was wrong – they all did – at such a point in the pandemic, is indefensible.

“I do not accept an apology, he should be held to account for breaking the law, and whatever rules were in force at the time.

“He would not have said anything about it at all if he had not been caught.

“They did not care. They have never cared. They only care about themselves, and particularly the prime minister only cares about what he can get away with. Until he is caught out, he won’t admit anything.

“It is just another reminder, if another was needed, it is one rule for us, and another for them – or no rules for them.

“How they could actually do that, and not think, ‘Hold on, we have just been telling people not to do this’, beggars belief, it really does.”

Dr Gardner’s challenge in the High Court is listed to be heard over six days in mid-March.

She is bringing the judicial review alongside Fay Harris, whose father also died with Covid-19 in a care home.

They argue certain key government policies and decisions led to a “shocking death toll” of more than 20,000 care home residents from Covid between March and June 2020.

These include a policy of discharging around 25,000 patients from hospital into care homes – including the homes of the claimants’ fathers – without testing and proper isolation.

The prime minister apologised in the House of Commons for attending a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of No 10.

He acknowledged the public “rage” over the incident but insisted he believed it was a “work event”.

Builders still bleat about Grenfell compensation despite £21bn profits

The push back against Michael Gove’s plan starts! – Owl

Calum Muirhead (Key points)

Britain’s major housebuilders have raked in billions of pounds in profits since the Grenfell Tower fire – and handed vast sums to their bosses.

As debate rages about who should pay to remove unsafe cladding from buildings, analysis by the Mail shows the eight biggest listed housing developers have made £21billion since the deadly inferno in 2017 and can well afford to make restitution.

The profit bonanza has prompted firms to hand their chief executives a total of £202million since 2017. 

The revelations come after Housing Secretary Michael Gove this week said he was prepared to take ‘all steps necessary’ to force the industry to contribute towards a £4billion fund to cover the cost of safety works……

…..Since 2017 the eight FTSE 350 builders have amassed profits of just over £21billion, our analysis shows. Persimmon, the largest London-listed housebuilder by market cap, raked in nearly £4.9billion.

Barratt Developments amassed profits of £3.9billion, and Berkeley Group £3.4billion. All three have developed properties found to have been covered in unsafe cladding, presenting a fire risk.

Bosses have also earned handsome sums, with Persimmon attracting attention for £86million it has doled out. 

A hefty chunk of this was the £82million bonus paid to former boss Jeff Fairburn in 2017 and 2018 – a package that drew outrage from politicians, corporate governance experts and charities, and ultimately led to his ousting from the company.

Berkeley chief executive Rob Perrins was paid nearly £60million.

Barratt and Taylor Wimpey paid out £14.9million and £11.3million to their bosses respectively.

The builders are now being asked to fund cladding removal, having already set aside £1billion to fix existing buildings, while another £2billion is expected to be raised from a cladding tax that comes into force in April.

However, many in the industry have criticised the Government focus on housebuilders, arguing that the makers of the cladding should also pay up.

Others have said their cash will be used to repair properties they were not responsible for building, such as those where the developer has gone bust. 

While the figure demanded by the Government is eye-wateringly high, it pales in comparison to the bumper profits hauled in by major builders, which has left many swimming in cash.

The profit boom has been fuelled by the ever-rising price of houses. The Help to Buy scheme has also been a boon for builders, but has been criticised for funnelling money into the pockets of developers and failing to stop first-time buyers from being priced out of the market.

A House of Lords report on Monday said the scheme, which will have cost £29billion when it ends next year, did not provide ‘good value for money’ for taxpayers, inflating house prices.

It said the money would have been better spent on building more homes. Several firms continued to rake in money despite a series of scandals in addition to the cladding controversy. 

In 2019, a review found some of Persimmon homes had exposed residents to an ‘intolerable’ fire risk due to poor build quality.

And last month, Taylor Wimpey agreed to scrap leasehold contracts that would double homeowner ground rents every ten years.

House price growth accelerated during the pandemic as buyers, encouraged by a stamp duty holiday and low interest rates, stormed into the market, seeking bigger homes.

The frenzy pushed the average cost of a UK home to a record £254,822 in December, according to data from Nationwide.

While the firms have grappled with rising costs of building materials caused by supply chain disruption, this has been more than offset by the escalating cost of British homes.

Newton Abbott MP has whip removed after voting to cut VAT on energy bills

With an 80 seat majority this government looks to be paralysed and foundering, and that was before the Prime Minister’s “Sorry…not sorry” statement.

Simon Jupp dutifully voted with the whip, yet we still have no plan to relieve the massive increases in household energy bills. – Owl

Anne Marie Morris, the MP for Newton Abbott, supported an opposition day motion tabled by Labour that urged the Government to remove the current tax rate of five per cent on domestic fuel supply.

By Dominic Penna

Labour had proposed to fund the measure, which the Resolution Foundation estimated would cost around £2 billion, with a one-off windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas companies.

Ms Morris was previously suspended for five months in 2017 after she was recorded using the ‘N-word’ during a panel event. She repeatedly apologised for this and acknowledged she had used “inappropriate and offensive language”.

On Monday, she said removing VAT was the “right thing to do” in the face of the cost-of-living crisis.

“It is deeply disappointing to have had the whip removed by the Government, especially on a matter of simply standing up for what I believed to be the best interests of my constituents,” she wrote on her website.

“Yesterday’s opposition day debate on removing VAT on household energy bills was an issue that I have voiced my support for a number of times.

“I remain strongly committed to Conservative principles and supporting a Conservative government that acts in the best interests of the country. But I will always vote on the issues of the day, whatever they may be, in the best interests of my constituents in Teignbridge as well as the wider country.”

Ms Morris added that while she understood the Government’s opposition to the procedural nature of the bill, which would have given Labour control of the order paper, she “won’t apologise” for supporting measures she believed would help her constituents.

The issue of rising fuel costs has been thrown into sharp focus ahead of April 1, when the energy price cap is predicted to rise by as much as 51 per cent, adding an estimated £600 a year to average bills.

The Treasury is planning a package of measures to ease the burden on lower-income households. The Telegraph reported on Tuesday that people living in colder parts of the country could receive greater financial support in a bid to protect them from rising costs.

Ms Morris was the only Tory MP who voted against the Government on the motion, which was ultimately defeated by 319 votes to 229. She will continue to sit as an independent, reducing the number of Conservatives in the Commons to 360.

In a winding-up speech, Greg Hands, the energy minister, said Labour “doesn’t have a plan, they have a four-page motion” on the issue of soaring bills.

“This is a student union tactic which they well-rehearsed during the Brexit years,” Mr Hands said. “They have completely lost the plot into their own world of procedural gobbledygook.”

Yet more “goings on” in Honiton Town Council!

There have been mass resignations before.

In September 2020, Honiton and District Chamber of Commerce and Industry cut all ties with Honiton Town Council.

This latest set of mass resignations includes the Mayor Cllr John Zarczynski.

Is this significant? – Owl

Upheaval at Honiton Town Council as six members walk out of meeting and resign

Philippa Davies

Six Honiton Town councillors including chairman Cllr John Zarczynski have resigned after walking out of the full council meeting on Monday, January 10. 

Vice-chairman Cllr Carol Gilson also resigned, along with Cllrs Jill McNally, Luke Dolby, Phil Carrigan and John Taylor. 

They all left the meeting after a vote was taken to approve the coming financial year’s budget and spending plan. The remaining councillors voted to continue the meeting with Cllr Serena Sexton in the role of chairman. 

The week before, on Monday, January 3, Cllr Vera Howard had resigned from the council. 

Honiton Town Council will meet again on Monday, January 17, when a new chairman will be elected and possibly a new vice-chairman. Councillors will also consider making the former Cllr Vera Howard an honorary citizen of the town. 

East Devon District Council will be notified of the seven vacancies. It will post an advert asking if by-elections are demanded, otherwise the vacancies will be advertised by the Town Council for co-option.