The link between pollution of the Axe and Liz Truss cuts to farm inspections

Liz Truss allowed farmers to pollute England’s rivers after ‘slashing red tape’, say campaigners

Helena Horton 

Liz Truss is responsible for farmers being allowed to dump a catastrophic “chemical cocktail” of pollutants into Britain’s rivers, according to environmental campaigners.

This has meant agricultural waste now outstrips sewage as the leading danger to England’s waterways.

Truss boasted of cutting farm inspections in a parliamentary exchange in 2015 when she was environment secretary. This allowed farmers to dump waste, including pesticides and animal faeces, into rivers.

“We have seen a reduction of 34,000 farm inspections a year and an 80% reduction in red tape from Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. That is vital for our £100bn food and farming industry,” Truss, who held the environment post from 2014 to 2016, told parliament.

“A future Conservative government would continue to bear down on red tape. We are considering pilots for landowners and farmers to manage watercourses themselves, to get rid of a lot of bureaucracy.”

Because of cuts to the Environment Agency and Truss’s policy of trimming official rules and inspections, farmers were able to dump waste in their local watercourses without much fear of being caught and fined. Campaigners say this has had dire consequences for England’s rivers.

For example, in the Wye valley, home to one of Europe’s largest concentrations of intensive livestock production, Lancaster University found there were 3,000 tonnes of excess phosphorus caused by agriculture seeping into the valley’s waterways.

Other rivers polluted by agriculture include the Axe, which flows through Dorset, Somerset and Devon, the Derwent in Yorkshire, the Ehen in Cumbria, and the Test and Itchen rivers in Hampshire.

Louisa Casson, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, said: “Letting industrial farms unleash a chemical cocktail into our rivers and get away with it has been catastrophic for our environment. Liz Truss’s crusade against red tape has been a key contributor and, ultimately, our wildlife and the public have been left wading through the resulting filth in the rivers they cherish.”

The Guardian revealed last week that Truss presided over huge cuts to the Environment Agency’s sewage monitoring system. She implemented a £24m cut from a government grant for environmental protection – including surveillance of water companies to prevent the dumping of raw sewage – between 2014-15 and 2016-17, according to the National Audit Office.

During Truss’s tenure at Defra, the department was taken to court by Fish Legal and the WWF over a change to the voluntary reporting of farm waste dumping. After a judicial review, the Environment Agency inspected the river Axe. It found that from the winter of 2016, 95% of farms had not complied with slurry storage regulations and 49% were polluting the river.

A spokesperson for the Wildlife Trusts explained: “Clearly, cutting farm inspections has left a legacy of significant water pollution.”

Campaigners say Truss’s policy meant that farm visits dwindled for years, and in 2018-19 inspectors visited only 403 farms to check for activities and practices that could cause water pollution. There are 106,000 registered farm businesses in England. Campaign group WildFish calculated that at that rate, farms could expect an inspection every 263 years.

Following the cuts in inspections, by 2019 agriculture had overtaken the water industry as the sector responsible for the greatest number of failures against water targets.

“Farm inspections are not designed to catch farmers out,” said Ali Morse, water policy manager at the Wildlife Trusts. “They ensure that our rivers and seas aren’t polluted, and that valuable soils and nutrients stay in fields and out of rivers. This is in the interests of the farming sector as much as our environment.”

Liz Truss was contacted but declined to comment.

Is Jacob Rees-Mogg about to sell off No 10 Downing Street?

Tory Efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is planning to sell underutilised government offices in London and the Prime Minister hasn’t used No 10 recently.

He has been working remotely, very remotely. -Owl

[Efficiency-Mogg is reported recently to have spent £1,332 of taxpayers’ cash travelling to, from and around Wrexham by chauffeur-driven limousine – instead of getting there by train, which would have cost £98. ]

Jacob Rees-Mogg to sell London offices as civil servants work from home

Nadeem Badshah

Jacob Rees-Mogg has revealed he is planning to sell off £1.5bn worth of government offices in London due to the proportion of civil servants continuing to work from home.

The minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency will publish a strategy next week that includes selling property assets over the next three years, with staff working in fewer buildings as part of a new network of government “hubs”, the Telegraph reported.

The proposal is part of a government property strategy aimed at raising £2bn in savings from property sales and efficiencies, and also encompasses the use of modern building materials and energy sources.

Rees-Mogg, who has orchestrated a long-running campaign to encourage civil servants to stop working from home after coronavirus restrictions were scrapped, told the Sunday Telegraph: “We have seen over the last year that expensive office space in central London has been underutilised. Why should the taxpayer be made to fork out for half-empty buildings?

“But moving civil servants to our beautiful counties and towns through the Places for Growth programme will benefit everyone, giving civil servants a better quality of life and helping economic growth outside the capital.

“We are cutting the cost of the public estate so that we can return money to the taxpayer. All spending on government property needs to be justified.”

The Conservative MP for North East Somerset added that transferring civil service jobs out of London would “allow greater savings and mean the government is closer to the communities it serves”.

In April, it emerged that Rees-Mogg had written to cabinet ministers urging them to coerce staff into a “rapid return to the office” and left notes in empty Whitehall workspaces with the message: “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.” Labour MPs called the move at the time “patronising” and “passive-aggressive”.

It also emerged that Rees-Mogg was conducting “spot checks” at offices to monitor occupancy rates with senior bosses told to publish figures on the proportion of government staff working from the office.

The minister has also condemned the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) after staff told bosses at the regulator that two days a week in the office is the most they can cope with.

“The FCA has an important job and any sensible person would recognise that spending only two days a week in the office will harm performance,” he told the Telegraph. “We know that people work better when they are together.”

Liz Truss ponders 5% VAT cut amid cost of living crisis

Liz Truss is considering whether to reduce VAT by 5% across the board, which could save families £1,300 a year, it was reported.

Nadeem Badshah

The foreign secretary is understood to have discussed the move with her advisers but no final decisions will be taken until the Conservative leadership contest concludes on 5 September, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

The Treasury is expected to present the new prime minister with plans modelled on Gordon Brown’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, where VAT was reduced from 20% to 17.5% for a year, as part of a series of proposals amid soaring energy bills.

Energy bills for a typical household will rise to £3,549 a year on 1 October, when a new price cap is introduced, it was announced on Friday.

If the rate of VAT is cut by up to 5% from the current standard rate of 20%, it would be the largest ever reduction.

Truss’s campaign has begun drawing up plans for her “emergency budget” but a source told the Telegraph that it “would not be right for her to announce her plans before she has even been elected prime minister or seen all the facts”.

A 5% cut would cost an estimated £3.2bn a month or £38bn to keep in place for one year, according to analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies research institute.

It would also reduce inflation temporarily by about 2%. Last month, Rishi Sunak announced plans to temporarily scrap VAT on household energy bills if elected prime minister.

A Treasury spokesperson said the government was making the “necessary preparations to ensure a new government has options to deliver additional support as quickly as possible”, adding: “No major fiscal decisions will be taken until the new prime minister is in post.”

Colyford could get its own council

Residents in the historic East Devon village of Colyford could get their own council after locals say they do not feel properly represented under the current system. 

Philip Churm, local democracy reporter

Villagers submitted a petition to East Devon District Council (EDDC) to carry out a ‘community governance review’; a process which can lead to the alteration or replacement of an existing parish council.

At present Colyford village is covered by Colyton Parish with 13 councillors but many people living south of Colyton say they feel left out of the democratic process.

Julian Thompson is one of the villagers driving the campaign and explained why they petitioned for a new council. 

He said: “People who are living here were finding they weren’t able to have a fair, democratic governance of their local services and things they wanted to get done in the village to the current council, because the current council always out-voted the number of Colyford parish councillors who were sitting on it.”

Mr Thompson said villagers felt the proportion of funds distributed across the existing parish unfairly favoured people in Colyton. 

“Because of the lack of democracy and transparency and clarity about where the Colyford tax had gone, it was very difficult to feel the local people were empowered and be able to look after their community,” he said. 

Mr Thompson and other supporters drafted a four-year financial plan and listed the benefits of having a village council for the community, including:

The village council will recognise the unique and historic identity of the ancient borough of Colyford from 1237 – one of the largest communities in East Devon without its own council. 

Residents will have access to a council that will work hard on their behalf – “by Colyford, for Colyford”. 

Money raised through council tax by Colyford residents will fund improvements in Colyford and not elsewhere. 

Residents will have greater influence on local planning matters, address their unique issues on traffic control and safety and build rapport with the local grammar school. 

Former RAF Air commodore and Falklands veteran Julian Thompson said they have considered all the necessary aspects of the proposal which, if successful, would result in the election of new councillors next May. 

“I have taken a very strict military approach to introducing new capability based on a military line of development,” he said.

“And from that I’ve taken all the inputs from the National Association of Local Councils and Devon village councils, EDDC, other parishes and built a sort of ‘how to introduce initial operating capability for local council’.” 

EDDC independent councillor for Axminster, Sarah Jackson, who is portfolio holder for democracy, transparency and communications said: “It is evident from the recent consultation that the residents of Colyford feel a sense of identity separate from that of Colyton and a clear desire to be self-governed via the formation of a new parish council, and so I am pleased to see this governance review progress to the next stage. 

“It is, however, important that the proposal is now refined and fine-tuned. Part of this will be to determine where exactly the boundary between the parishes will fall. 

“I strongly encourage all those who are consulted on the draft proposal to fully engage with the process so that your views are considered and taken on board.”

The next stage in the process would be to consider submissions and prepare final proposals which could then be submitted to EDDC cabinet in November and full council by December. 

If passed, elections under the new arrangements would take place in May 2023.  

Hundreds of coastal overflow sites ‘not included’ in UK government sewage plan

Government plans to reduce sewage spills in English waters fail to include hundreds of storm overflows into estuaries and the sea, according to new analysis.

Saphora Smith 

In the government’s draft storm overflow discharge reduction plan the only coastal overflows that must cut spills are those near designated bathing sites, but it’s not clear what distance is classified as “near” one,  according to the Marine Conservation Society.

Its analysis found that around 600 coastal sites therefore won’t have to reduce the number of times they spill sewage into the sea, some of which could be near Marine Protected Areas.

Meanwhile, for inland waters and designated bathing waters water companies must not discharge sewage more than an average of 10 rainfall events per year by 2050, according to the draft targets. A rainfall event is up to 12 hours of rain.

“Defra can’t provide a list to us of the storm overflows which aren’t going to included [in the targets] – which is ridiculous in itself – so these overflows could be discharging into marine protected areas, shellfish waters or other beaches which are not designated as bathing waters,” said Rachel Wyatt, water quality policy and advocacy manager at the Marine Conservation Society.

The “uncontrolled” dumping of sewage will have a direct impact on England’s estuaries and seas which are “already known to be failing to meet key water quality targets,” said Ms Wyatt. “And there’s nothing to stop water companies from diverting more sewage to these overflows to meet upstream targets.”

The target of 2050 for inland waters and bathing sites is also “nowhere near soon enough,” she added. “Our environment can not wait another 28 years for this impact to stop.”

In 2021, untreated sewage was spilt 66,286 times, for a total of 440,508 hours, within one km of marine protected areas, which are home to some of the most important habitats and marine life in the country, according to the Marine Conservation Society.

Sewage contains bacteria, viruses, harmful chemicals and microplastics which can impact marine life. Microplastics, for example, if ingested by marine life can damage animals’ digestive systems, and even stop them from feeding, resulting in impacts on their growth, development, reproduction and lifespan, it said.

The government consulted on its storm overflow discharge reduction plan earlier this year and is due to publish its final stratgey next month.

Amid the recent scrutiny of the UK’s wastewater disposal, Water Minister Steve Double has said the government has been “clear” that water companies’ reliance on overflows is “unacceptable” and that they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority.”

The Marine Conservation Society’s analysis comes as three French MEPs said the UK was putting the environment, fishermen’s livelihoods and public health at risk by pumping sewage into the sea.

In a joint statement, the European politicians accused Britain of neglecting its environmental commitments made during the Brexit process. A government spokesperson said it was “simply not true” that the UK had “exempted ourselves” of strict targets on water quality.

Meanwhile, The Independent revealed this week that all wastewater companies in England and Wales have failed to meet their targets to tackle pollution of sewage floods.

Public warnings were also issued in the UK about pollution at more than 50 beaches after wastewater firms discharged sewage into the sea and new figures revealed that sewage has been dumped into England and Wales’ natural environment more than a million times in the past five years.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We will be setting out proposals imminently that will provide a comprehensive plan to tackle the issue of combined sewage overflows . We have been clear to water companies that action is long overdue.”