Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 12 September

Sewage spills go undetected as water companies give watchdog “dodgy data”

Sewage spills into rivers and the sea often go undetected because water companies are supplying faulty data to a government watchdog, analysis for The Times suggests.

Rhys Blakely www.thetimes.co.uk 

The findings will fuel concerns that a £56 billion plan to reduce discharges will be undermined if water companies are allowed to continue monitoring their own performances.

The issue will be in the spotlight in a High Court hearing this week at which Ofwat, the water industry regulator, will be accused of ignoring its duty to protect the environment.

The latest analysis looked at spills of sewage into rivers and the sea from “storm overflow” emergency outlets that are supposed to be used only in severe conditions.

By looking at detailed data collected in 36 sewage treatment works — information that the Environment Agency (EA) can access but does not routinely check — 1,516 days were identified between 2018 and 2021 when it appeared highly likely that sewage was released in conditions that did not meet permits, making them illegal.

The EA is supposed to be made aware of them but many were not reported. For example, the analysis included the sewage treatment works at Henley-on-Thames, a noted rowing area. Thames Water, which operates the sewage works, told the EA there were no spills in 2020. The analysis suggests the plant released sewage in breach of its permit on seven days that year.

The analysis also looked at the Woodstock sewage treatment works which discharges into the River Glyme which flows through lakes in the grounds of Blenheim Palace.

Thames Water told the EA in 2020 there were no spills but added that this was a mistake and the report would be corrected. The new analysis suggests the sewage plant, in a site of special scientific interest, spilled for about 363 hours that year.

The private utility company has not updated its 2020 report, which was submitted 18 months ago. It has not disputed the new analysis. The report also includes the Ambleside sewage plant in Cumbria, which discharges into the River Rothay and into Windermere, England’s largest lake. Pollution concerns were raised this summer because the lake suffered high levels of potentially toxic blue-green algae.

Ambleside appears not to have submitted any data on spills to the EA for last year. Data supplied by United Utilities for the analysis suggests that it spilled for more than 900 hours. United said it did not agree with the analysis, claiming it was “largely based on assumption rather than evidence”.

Overall, 16 of the 36 sewage works examined appear to have provided incorrect data to the EA.

Professor Peter Hammond, of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp), carried out the analysis. His exposure of illegal spills helped to force the government to begin an investigation that led to a proposal last month to tackle the problem.

The spills involve “storm overflows” which act as relief valves for the sewage system. They are supposed to discharge excess storm water, combined with untreated sewage, directly into water bodies during periods of heavy rainfall.

Hammond has shown that many overflows are spilling waste into rivers when there is little or no rain and before treatment works are working at full capacity.

The government plan calls for a mandatory £56 billion investment programme by the water companies.

There are about 13,350 storm overflows in England, discharging to rivers. A report commissioned by the government looked at 9,240 of them and concluded that they were used more than 340,000 times in 2020.

The government plan calls for a 14 per cent reduction in these spills by 2030 and a 50 per cent reduction by 2040. The new analysis suggests, however, that the EA will not be able to monitor compliance if it continues to rely on water companies monitoring themselves.

Ofwat said that it was reviewing Hammond’s analysis. The regulator said: “What we are witnessing, with sewage being released into the environment, isn’t acceptable. Water companies do not take enough responsibility for their impact on the environment.”

A spokeswoman for the Rivers Trust said: “This report emphasises the inherent failures with the current system of self-reporting sewage spills. It’s clear the data has not been adequately audited and in many cases is invalid.

“We need a much better process of quality assurance from the water companies themselves, plus a stronger audit from the EA.”

Five of the ten water companies that were covered did not take issue with Hammond’s analysis of the performance of the treatment included in the study. However, United Utilities Severn Trent, South West, Anglian Water and Yorkshire said that they did not agree with his findings. An Anglian representative said: “We don’t recognise the data being put forward in this report as being correct.”

Hammond’s report also highlights the difficulty he has faced in getting some water companies to share data. “There are 40 STWs named [in the new report] but only 36 analysed because of data being withheld,” he said.

He said Severn Trent and United Utilities — judged by Ofwat to have met an “industry leading” standard for environmental performance — have refused to supply detailed data for sewage spills in 2020 and last year from 4,500 overflows whereas the other eight water companies complied fully with the request.

A spokeswoman for United said: “While there is an ongoing regulatory investigation into the performance of wastewater treatment works, it is right and proper that the relevant data is shared only with the investigating authorities.”

‘Sheep or jobs – your choice!’

Councillors debate what a freeport will mean

Councillors in South Hams were asked to choose between sheep and jobs  – including an exchange about the relative merits of eating grass or money – during a debate about the planned Plymouth and South Devon Freeport.

Philip Churm, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

Langage Energy Park (image courtesy: Google Maps)

They were discussing the need to acquire land for the proposed Langage Energy Park through compulsory purchase orders (CPO).

In April, South Hams District Council (SHDC) agreed to take part in the freeport project, which involves Plymouth, South Hams and West Devon. 

Freeports are areas where normal tax and customs rules do not apply. Imports can enter with simplified customs documentation and without paying tariffs.

During Thursday’s full council meeting [22 September] members debated a recommendation to approve an area of land next to the A38 at Langage which may need to be obtained by compulsory purchase. 

The legal costs for this could reach £350,000.  

Green Party councillor for Dartington and Staverton, Jacqi Hodgson, criticised the plan, suggesting the land could be better used.  

She said: “We need the land that we have for food, if we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint as massively as we need to, and we’re going to need all the land we can to grow our food. 

“And I know this is all about money, but as they always say, ‘you can’t actually eat money.’ 

“I would just ask, if we’re meant to be requiring net biodiversity gain, how are they going to do that by converting green-field land that’s currently supporting sheep farming and food production?”

Langage Energy Park including the area that may need to be compulsorily purchased (image courtesy: SHDC)

Council leader and Conservative member for Salcombe and Thurlestone Judy Pearce responded by highlighting how the economic benefits outweighed the disruption. 

“It’s all very well to say that we ought to have sheep on the land or we ought to be building houses instead or something like that,” said Cllr Pearce. “But actually this freeport is going to provide some really well-paid jobs.”

Cllr Pearce suggested successful businesses and well-paid employees pay tax which benefit all members of society.  

“If we don’t have things like freeports and employment areas, we’re going to get none of those taxes in – none of those business rates. And there’s not going to be any money to run any of our public services.

“So you take your choice. You can either have sheep or we can be better off.  And a lot of people these days are vegetarians anyway. So what are you going to do, go out and eat the grass?”

Langage Energy Park is one of three freeport tax sites proposed for Devon. The others are at South Yard in Devonport and part of Sherford Employment Zone; providing a combined footprint of around 130 hectares for development.

The vote to approve the compulsory purchase orders was passed by 21 in favour, four against and four abstentions.  

Total capital investment in the freeport is expected to reach £311 million; made up of £25 million in a government seed capital grant and matched locally with £29 million.  The total private sector investment is expected to be almost £247 million.

EDDC to decide on investigation into Humphreys at Extraordinary Consultative Meeting Wednesday 28 September

John Humphteys was convicted in 2021 of the historic rape of two boys and sentenced to 21 years.

He was first questioned in 2005 but police did not find sufficient evidence for a prosecution.

Following a complaint by a second victim, Humphreys was arrested eleven years later, in 2016, before being released on bail on suspicion of sex crimes against children. 

John Humphreys was Mayor of Exmouth from 2012 to 2014 and served for 12 years as a Conservative councillor on East Devon District Council (EDDC). He was also a governor of a primary school in Exmouth and was appointed an alderman by EDDC in 2019. He accepted the honour despite knowing that he was under investigation by the police.

EDDC in an Extraordinary Consultative Meeting to be held online on Wednesday 28 September at 6.00pm is to decide whether or not to investigate how all this could have happened and what lessons can be learned.

The issues couldn’t be more serious: the protection and safeguarding of children.

Owl believes this online meeting must be witnessed by as many East Devon residents as possible, preferably in real time, alternatively later on the EDDC Youtube channel. 

More than enough evidence for investigation

In May the inews.co.uk carried an investigative report on Humphreys uncovering evidence that:

“The council knew Humphreys was being investigated for sex offences from 2016 but did nothing to prevent him continuing with his duties, which involved him coming into contact with children”

Also:

“A senior council official knew about the police investigation into Humphreys in 2016 because Devon and Cornwall Police asked him, in a formal meeting, if Humphreys’ continuing role as a councillor would bring him into contact with children, i has learned.”

And:

“A leaked memo from East Devon District Council (EDDC) chief executive Mark Williams, which was sent to all 60 councillors earlier this month, states: “An officer knew something dating back to 2016 but was under a duty of confidentiality.”

“A second councillor is also alleged to have told a fellow member that he knew Humphreys had a court hearing coming up but it is not clear if he knew details of the charges.” ( Covered in this post)

These are more than enough grounds to prompt an investigation. Obviously in a spirit of candour to learn lessons, rather than recrimination.

What has happened since decisions to proceed were taken in May?

At the time this inews article was published in May, EDDC seemed intent on conducting an external investigation looking into the circumstances around Humphreys from 2016, when he was first arrested to the point when he was convicted and jailed in August 2021. The Chief Executive, Mark Williams, was tasked with investigating how this might be done.

In June Mark Williams is quoted as saying “Rushing something as important as this is, in my opinion, inappropriate.”

Then, in the September cabinet meeting, at short notice, Mark Williams outlined reasons why he now advised against a separate independent investigation and requested an extraordinary consultative meeting (EGM) to consider this.

He indicated that, in his opinion, the council should be focusing its attention on the future, rather than rake over old ground. “That’s why I don’t think it would be a proportionate use of public money merely to sort of focus in on Humphreys.”  

Council is now to consider two options

This crucial meeting is now scheduled to be held online on Wednesday 28 September at 6.00pm.

The council will be asked to decide between two options

Option (A) This Council hereby commissions Verita [an independent investigations company] to carry out an independent investigation in accordance with Verita’s proposal attached (“the Investigation”) and instructs Simon Davey the Strategic Lead for Finance immediately to complete (or authorise completion of) the contract and any necessary paperwork with Verita; Approves a budget of up to £45,000 (exc VAT) for the Investigation. ……[Veritas to work through Lead for Strategic Finance and Cllrs Ian Thomas (Chair), Sarah Jackson (portfolio holder for Democracy and Transparency) and Jess Bailey].

In brief, this is a proposal to conduct an investigation with the aim of establishing a timeline of what was known, to understand what decision-making processes were involved and the extent that Humphreys was considered a safeguarding risk, to determine whether any improvements could be made and to flag up any other significant issues that arise. [View full Verita proposal here]

Option (B) That Council approves a budget of £45,000 and that a Legal 500 recommended firm of Solicitors is appointed in accordance with contract standing orders to undertake an investigation and report which will provide the Council with a full understanding of the legal issues and implications arising from the investigation, prosecution and conviction of John Humphreys as far as it relates to the role of EDDC and its officers and members and that delegated authority be given to one of the statutory officers, in consultation with the Portfolio Holders for Council & Corporate Coordination and Democracy, Transparency & Communications, to progress the investigation.

In brief, this looks like an officer led, administrative review of procedures and legal issues concerning the council, focusing on the future.

Comment: Owl doesn’t see how you can look to the future (Option B) without having fully understood what lessons needed to be learned from the past (Option A).

Candour and transparency

It is now six years since Humphreys was arrested and a year since he was convicted. Despite his very long sentence, reflecting the gravity of his crime, there has been very little press coverage. Information has emerged piecemeal but only when someone has had the courage not just to ask questions, but to press them. For example, it was only after a question from Cllr Paul Arnott on 4 May asking for clarification that Simon Jupp MP issued the following statement saying

 “For less than two months in 2019, I lived at a flat owned by Mr Humphreys but was completely unaware of his abhorrent crimes for which he was jailed in August 2021.

“I deplore his actions. Had I known anything about his crimes, I would not have lived at the property and would have immediately reported my concerns to the police.”

At that time the local Tory party was very much in “No Comment” mode.  Over a year since Humphreys’ conviction we can, at last, see a formal “nothing to see here” response from them dated 7 September.

Would it be unfair for Owl to describe all this as foot dragging?

Administrative inertia?

Reading between the lines it looks as if a few feathers have been ruffled in trying to set up an inquiry.

Given the persistent reluctance, to date, to grasp this problem with urgency, frankly this is a good sign.

Note these quotes from the agenda papers “Report”, para 12, page 7.

“Cllr Bailey did not discuss her proposal with any of the statutory officers. We have highlighted our concerns to Cllr Bailey in correspondence but in summary form, having reviewed the Verita website, the Verita proposal and also read the report that Verita did for the Green Party, it does not suggest that Verita have relevant legal expertise and knowledge or experience of local government to warrant an exemption being made to contract standing orders. For example, the aim of investigation section displays a fundamental misunderstanding in that it assumes the Council was in the position (assuming it had knowledge) to take decisions in relation to John Humphreys continuing as a councillor.”

[Despite Mark Williams comments above, see here for Verita’s credentials and track record for conducting sensitive investigations of this sort, particularly for the Green Party, see here, and form your own view. It is worth mentioning that Cllr Jess Bailey is a member of the Law Society].

Followed by this general “put down” :

My reflection on what has been said so far in Cabinet and Council is that members are not sufficiently sighted on the legal framework, issues and implications of this issue. 

However, the briefing pack contains Counsel’s advice “In the Matter of John Humphrey” commissioned by Mark Williams. 

The Council the power but has it the will?

The “bottom line” from this legal advice is that the Council does have power to undertake an investigation, provided it is reasonable to do so and follows the advice given in para 21 with its scope observing the principles outlined in paras 16 and 23 to 28.

Footnote:

In June, Cllr Jess Bailey, formally asked when concerns were first raised with Devon County Council about John Humphreys and what action had been taken to keep children safe.

In a written response, Cllr Leadbetter (Cabinet member for Children’s Services and Schools) said: “I can confirm that the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) received a referral via the NSPCC in 2014. As part of the LADO process, our officers discussed the case with the police. The police were already aware of the individual and the allegations that had been made, and advised us that there was not enough evidence to investigate further, and it was agreed that no further action would be taken.

Owl understands that Devon County Council is now conducting its own investigation but the Devon and Cornwall Police Force is not.