After years of bobbing along, the water regulator may be waking up and smelling the sewage

“This is a last chance to restore regulatory credibility on a problem that should have been tackled a couple of decades ago.”

Nils Pratley 

Has Ofwat woken from its slumbers? There are encouraging signs. On the troubled issue of sewage – specifically, the vast quantities of the stuff pumped into rivers – the water regulator in England and Wales is suddenly talking as if it means business.

“From what we have seen so far, the scale of the issue here is shocking,” said David Black, chief executive, in unusually strong language as he added South West Water, owned by quoted group Pennon, to the list of firms targeted with enforcement cases connected to the management of treatment works.

There is a question of whether Ofwat has a right to be shocked. It has regulated the sector since privatisation 30 years ago, so should have uncovered the industry’s dirty secrets by now. But the joint investigation with the Environment Agency (EA) into potentially illegal spills at treatment works, launched last November, is shaping up – possibly – as a major event.

The stench of a scandal grows with every update. South West joins Anglian, Northumbrian, Thames, Wessex and Yorkshire on the regulator’s list for specific targeting. So more than half the sector is now in a process that can lead to fines of up to 10% of turnover.

The City is starting to take it seriously. Analysts at Jefferies, who recently hosted the chief executive of campaign group Surfers Against Sewage to address fund managers on the grim technicalities of waste dumping, have been warning for a while about “increasing regulatory risks for UK water”. They called Ofwat’s Pennon move “a strongly toned update that signals to us that further scrutiny and regulation is to come”.

About time too. Data from the EA revealed an astonishing 2.7m hours of spills in England in 2021. Only 14% of English rivers are deemed to be of good ecological standard, a grotesque statistic. Sewage isn’t the only cause of poor river health, it should be said, but the gamechanging development for the water companies may be better monitoring equipment.

One suspicion is that companies have been interpreting previously ambiguous data in their favour. Another is that claimed capacities at treatment works have not been maintained, leading to excess discharges. Both touch on basic licence conditions. If evidence of breaches is found, the authorities would be virtually obliged to get heavy.

Despite the regulators’ deserved reputation for timidity, there is a precedent. Southern Water was ordered by Ofwat to pay £126m to customers in 2019 for enormous spills plus deliberate misreporting of data, and a £90m fine followed in 2020 in a criminal case brought by the EA. The sums represented a rare instance of when owning a water company is not a one-way bet in which the customers pay via their bills. The owners of privately held Southern promptly sold it.

Customers should still brace to fund future upgrades of the network that are plainly needed to meet tougher storm overflow requirements. Jefferies put the cost at £23bn-£80bn, implying £69-£140 a year on average household bills. But the backward-looking focus of the Ofwat/EA investigation is the first event. It is vital that both bodies hold the line against inevitable corporate lobbying. This is a last chance to restore regulatory credibility on a problem that should have been tackled a couple of decades ago.

Martin Shaw, Chair East Devon Alliance: “We need even greater unity to consolidate the victory”

Together we won the by-election, but we need even greater unity to consolidate the victory

My column which should have appeared in today’s Midweek Herald 

The Liberal Democrats have achieved an historic victory in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election. I warmly congratulate Richard Foord and wish him the very best as the area’s first non-Conservative MP for over a century. The result shows, as he says, that we have spoken for the country and told our disgraced prime minister, Boris Johnson, to go and to go now. 

But it is more than that. It is a rejection of twelve wasted years of Conservative government which have left Britain diminished by Brexit, our NHS and public services starved, and many people facing hardship this coming winter. Voters have recognised that far from being ‘levelled up’, the South West has been left further and further behind. People agree that the Tories have ‘taken Devon for granted’ as the Lib Dem leaflets rightly put it.

One of the good things for me about the by-election campaign was the chance it gave me to meet more readers of this column. One man I spoke to thought it was too anti-Tory. But now we know the result, it appears that my criticisms are in tune with what many residents are thinking. Previous Conservative voters are themselves becoming ‘anti-Tory’, because the party is no longer ‘conservative’ in the traditional sense. No wonder the three openly far-right candidates did so poorly – the extreme right is now represented by the Conservatives!

A grassroots progressive alliance

The result was the result of an impressively professional Lib Dem campaign but also of a genuine progressive alliance at the grass roots. Moderate former Conservatives, Labour and Green voters all joined together to prevent Boris Johnson’s candidate winning. Many activists from other parties including the East Devon Alliance of Independents joined the Lib Dem campaign. 

My Independent colleague Claire Wright ruled herself out to avoid splitting the Lib Dem vote, when it became clear that they had the best chance of winning. It has to be said that the Labour Party did themselves no favours by campaigning so vigorously only to lose their deposit. The Greens got almost as many votes without campaigning and their candidate wisely acknowledged that tactical voting was necessary.

Richard’s task is our task

Richard Foord faces a formidable task. He must speak up on all the issues he picked up in his campaign and address the consequences of decades of government neglect. While bedding in at Westminster, he also needs to make himself much more available and better known to voters than Neil Parish was, perhaps through public meetings and monthly surgeries in each of the area’s towns. 

These are not just Richard’s problems, however. The by-election campaign mobilised voters with the help of Lib Dem activists from all over the country, but the new progressive majority in the area is not strongly enough organised in our local communities. Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and EDA need to find ways of working together to build a support base which can make this week’s historic change permanent.

The challenge of consolidating the victory

The size of Richard’s victory gives me hope that it is more than a flash in the pan. Hard though it was, it could prove however to have been the easy bit. The Tories will try to sneak back in at the general election when boundaries change, presumably with a less hapless candidate. In this context, Richard’s majority will probably be squeezed. The votes ‘wasted’ on Labour and the Greens could be the difference between success and failure.

This takes us back to the national crisis. Johnson intends to defy the voters and cling on. To be sure of getting rid of him in the next election, the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens need to come together at the national level. The crisis in our country is enormous and it requires a new kind of cooperative politics. Together we have won the by-election battle, but we need even greater unity to win the bigger prize.

Tiverton & Honiton: the lessons

Opposition parties in this campaign claimed the Conservatives’ dominance in rural England had led to them taking seats like Tiverton and Honiton for granted, with money being diverted into former ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England  – a suggestion they strongly denied.

Many voters expressed concern about the state of local services – and that ‘levelling-up’ meant money from the south being directed to the north. Lack of progress over a new Tiverton High School – backed by all major parties – was frequently mentioned, as were the area’s lengthy ambulance waiting times and struggles to access NHS dentistry.

Devon Tory MPs should be concerned

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter 

Richard Foord MP thanks voters

Tiverton and Honiton’s newest MP Richard Foord described his triumph in last week’s by-election as a “shockwave through British politics.”

Certainly it was felt quickly in Westminster, where Conservative chairman Oliver Dowden resigned shortly after the Devon defeat became the Tories’ second loss of the night.

Ripples also reached under-pressure Boris Johnson in Rwanda, there for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. If some in his own party have their way, he will not be a head of government for much longer.

Now the dust has settled on the result, we explore some key themes from the by-election.

No typical by-election defeat

The Lib Dems won this seat by eliminating a Tory majority of 24,000 – the biggest ever overturned at a by-election. The prime minister cannot therefore dismiss this result as a case of the mid-term ballot box blues typically endured by governing parties.

Furthermore, the predominantly rural constituency was about as safe as parliamentary seats go until Neil Parish’s much-publicised resignation in April.

No party other than the Conservatives had represented Tiverton or Honiton at Westminster – in one form or another – since the 1920s. Even then, only Tiverton went to the Liberal Party for a time between 1923 and 1924. Otherwise both towns have been blue since at least 1885.

Lib Dems a force in south west again

The south west has traditionally been a Liberal Democrat heartland, holding power in councils and returning MPs. The 2015 general election, in which they were decimated following their first taste of government in a coalition, put paid to that.

But buoyed by winning overall control of the new unitary Somerset Council in May’s local elections and widespread dissatisfaction with a government mired in scandal, the Lib Dems eyed Tiverton & Honiton as a potential win. Despite Labour coming second here at the last two elections, its focus was on the other by-election in Wakefield.

Mr Foord was always likely to be the more obvious option for disgruntled Tories, given the Lib Dems are well represented at local council level. By contrast, Labour have just two district councillors in Mid and East Devon combined.

But an overwhelming win for a party that campaigned to re-join the EU at the last general election – no longer its policy – in an area that voted leave in 2016, suggests Brexit is no longer the big issue for voters it once was.

Local issues matter

While the cost-of-living crisis was an overriding concern, local issues also played a big part in how people voted.

Opposition parties in this campaign claimed the Conservatives’ dominance in rural England had led to them taking seats like Tiverton and Honiton for granted, with money being diverted into former ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England  – a suggestion they strongly denied.

Many voters expressed concern about the state of local services – and that ‘levelling-up’ meant money from the south being directed to the north. Lack of progress over a new Tiverton High School – backed by all major parties – was frequently mentioned, as were the area’s lengthy ambulance waiting times and struggles to access NHS dentistry.

All the main parties chose local candidates – something that doesn’t always happen. All but two – the Lib Dems and the Conservatives – lost their deposits, meaning they couldn’t win enough support to bag five per cent of the votes cast.

But national issues matter too

Despite the reason for Neil Parish’s departure, many constituents spoke highly of him and the work he had undertaken locally since his election in 2010. But his Conservative successor as candidate, Helen Hurford, failed to impress sufficently enough with her local credentials as a former headteacher and businesswoman, suggesting national issues were important to voters.

Against a background of inflation above nine per cent, fuel hovering near £2 a litre, food and fuel prices soaring, and partygate fresh in the electorate’s mind, a candidate whose government has been in charge for 12 years didn’t have an easy sales message. Cabinet ministers pitching up to support Ms Hurford were kept well away from the media and from voters other than true blue supporters.

Lib Dem candidate’s Richard Foord’s campaign leaflets quoted Helen Hurford’s backing for the prime minister

The Lib Dems’ election machine exploited that. When Ms Hurford revealed she supported Boris Johnson in the week 148 of his MPs decided they didn’t, Richard Foord’s team quickly distributed leaflets with the PM’s photo and Ms Hurford’s quote.

Will tactical voting continue in the general election?

There is little doubt many voters felt forced into compromise at the ballot box. Many Conservative loyalists stayed at home on polling day or switched their vote. Labour’s vote collapsed, although both Labour and the Lib Dems deny the existence of any formal pact.

Labour was the nearest Conservative challenger in 2019 but it appears its supporters simply got behind the most likely challenger – in this case Mr Foord.

The Lib Dems were helped by an orange army of activists and a candidate whom the Economist said “looks Devonian, with an authentically unfashionable haircut.”

He also had the advantage of being a former soldier in a region with a high proportion of service veterans.

The scale of tactical voting in Thursday’s poll will worry some of Devon’s sitting Tory MPs, with the Lib Dems jumping 38 percentage points on their previous result.

East Devon MP Simon Jupp’s constituency is to alter considerably in the forthcoming boundary changes. He will have to choose whether to contest a new Exmouth seat that will include a huge chunk of south and east Exeter, or more rural Honiton.

In Newton Abbot, Totnes, Torridge/West Devon and North Devon, Liberal Democrats were second to the Conservative winner in the 2019 election – and all have smaller majorities to overcome if they are to win.

If the tactical voting approach seen in Tiverton and Honiton is replicated elsewhere in Devon and further afield at the next general election, it may hamper the chances of a fifth consecutive term in office for the Tories.

WHIPPED INTO SUBMISSION –  Simon Jupp joined 72 in abstaining on NI Protocol Bill

WHIPPED INTO SUBMISSION: Government whips are pretty feeling pleased with themselves after the outcome of last night’s vote on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which passed its second reading by 295 votes to 221 — a majority of 74.

Extraordinarily: Not a single Tory MP voted against it — not Theresa May, who said the bill was “not legal” and would “diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world” … not Simon Hoare, who accused ministers of “playing fast and loose with our international reputation” and suggested this was all a “muscle flex for a future leadership bid” from Liz Truss … and not Andrew Mitchell, who said it “brazenly breaks a solemn international treaty.”

Instead … 72 Tory MPs abstained (including a number who will have been excused from voting). The abstainers include two former Northern Ireland secretaries — Julian Smith and Karen Bradley … two former attorneys general — Geoffrey Cox and Jeremy Wright … as well as May, a former PM, and Hoare, who chairs the NI select committee. More from POLITICO’s Cristina Gallardo.

Behind the scenes: A Tory MP texted Playbook last night that the rebellion had been whittled down by “a combination of veiled threats about losing the whip, political honors being dangled and an ability for the government to dupe MPs by lying openly about quite a technical bill.” They added that some MPs are reluctant to fall out with Tory leadership contenders who will be in the market for Euroskeptics to promote to Cabinet if they make it to No. 10.

(London Politico Playbook)

Census 2021 data confirms East Devon Tories’  “Build, build, build” policy produced the fastest population growth in Devon

Memo to Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities:

At 13.8% over ten years East Devon has the highest growth for any local authority in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, or Dorset and second only to Trowbridge in the South West Region which also includes Gloucester and Wiltshire. 

It is higher than the population growth of the cities of Bristol (10.3%), Exeter (11.1%) or Plymouth with a paltry (3.2%).

It is more than twice the average for England and Wales, at 6.3%.

This is also well above the average of 8.3% increase from 2011 for the East of England, the region with the highest population growth.

Why did our local Tories do this?

Obviously a few landowners have made a killing, but our district has become more congested. We have lost valuable grade 1 agricultural land. We have lost hospitals and hospital beds.

Where are the benefits? What has a grateful government done to support us?

Has this provided affordable houses for local people?

Surely we have “done our bit” – Owl

For details and interactive map see this ONS site.

Ofwat investigates South West Water over sewage discharge

South West Water is under investigation over its treatment of sewage, the Water Services Regulation Authority has announced.

By Georgina Rannard

It joins five other water companies in England and Wales being probed over wastewater concerns.

Raw sewage was discharged into waterways 375,000 times last year, according to the Environment Agency.

South West Water said it was taking Ofwat’s decision “very seriously.”

Discharged raw sewage poses a serious risk to health and the environment.

South West Water cover Devon, Cornwall and small parts of Dorset and Somerset, areas of England that are popular with swimmers and surfers.

Investigations are ongoing into Anglian Water, Northumbrian Water, Thames Water, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water.

It has become common in England and Wales for members of the public to report seeing raw sewage in rivers, canals and along the coasts.

Condoms, toilet paper, and even excrement can be seen in the water and on riverbanks or beaches.

“As we gather and analyse more information, including data on storm overflow spills, our concerns have grown further about South West Water’s operation of its wastewater assets and environmental performance,” said David Black, Ofwat Chief Executive.

He called the scale of the issue so far “shocking” and told BBC News that Ofwat had never taken action on this scale before.

A South West Water spokesperson said the company would work “openly and transparently” with Ofwat. The company noted that it had recently announced its largest environmental programme in 15 years.

“This will reduce our use of storm overflows, maintain our region’s excellent bathing water quality standards all year round and reduce and then remove our impact on river water quality by 2030,” South West Water said.

The charity Rivers Trust told BBC News that the decision to open the investigation was “long overdue” and that “this kind of practice has become business as usual in the water sector.”

In January, MPs were warned that a “chemical cocktail” is running through all of England’s rivers.

Ofwat has the power to fine water companies 10% of their annual income.