A mainstay for any attack on the Conservative government or Brexit is to mention the sewage being ‘pumped’ into our rivers and seas by psychotic spivs that hate the population. Ironically, for liberal centrists that purport to despise populism, this is exactly that, designed to prompt a visceral response. It’s also a tool for crude humour (see title). The truth of the matter is not as clear cut. Yet again, it is a distortion the usual suspects want to become gospel, without anyone questioning it.
Why is sewage being released? Sewage is usually sent to treatment plants where it is filtered and treated in three stages. The solids and bacteria are removed, leaving water which (although not fit for human consumption) is clean enough to release into the sea and rivers. Treated solids are used as fertiliser and burned to generate electricity. However, this process is not always possible.
The problem is nearly half of England’s sewers are ‘combined’. This means both sewage and rainwater go into them, and thus it is easier for the system to be overwhelmed, especially during heavy rainfall. This is made worse with the problem of ‘fatbergs’ and the tendency for people to flush away items like wet-wipes. When the system is overloaded there is not the capacity or the time for the sewage to be treated. In order to stop it bursting into the street and up through our toilets, it has to be released into bodies of water where in theory it will disperse. Should it happen, ideally? Of course not – but it is certainly preferable to towns full of effluent.
In the Victorian era, when these sewers were built, the population was much smaller. Indeed for some while there was no technology to treat effluent at all, nor the ecological and medical concerns about discharging into waterways. Thus separating rain and effluent was not considered. It wasn’t until 1858 after the ‘Great Stink’ of London that sewers were built to take the effluent out of cities. The combined sewer approach continued until the 1960s, when all new sewers were built to separate wastewater. With these systems, the rainwater is immediately released into waterways but the pipes containing sewage go to the treatment plants.
After a half-century of mass immigration (skyrocketing in 1997), sewers – combined or otherwise – are seriously overstretched. Therefore the need to discharge sewage in emergencies is more frequent. With record immigration numbers of over a million people a year it will only continue. Of course we could fully replace the remaining combined sewers, and in time we should. However the cost is estimated to be at least £150 billion, according to the Storm Overflows Taskforce. A House of Lords report has the true figure at £350 to £600 billion. With the current setup this would inevitably be passed onto the consumer through their water bills. The price does not only include building the new pipes, but also the cost of digging up the old ones and everything built on top of them. As well as the practical costs, the legal costs and compensation would be astronomical. To put the price tag into context, HS2 and renewing Trident are costing well over £100 billion each and the Covid spend was north of £300 billion.
Every time Labour or other parties promise to solve the problem, we must then ask if they intend to replace those pre-1960s pipes, and how they intend to pay for it. We could also ask why the last Labour governments did not perform the necessary upgrades. After all, they began the unprecedented immigration which exacerbates the problem so.
Combined sewers are not particular to our squalid ‘plague island’. Countries all around the world have them, and there are 333,000 combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in Europe. England has 14,500. As a result the EU have intervened against most of its member states on effluent pollution multiple times, including the UK while we were in the bloc. However, in 2012 the ECJ did rule that releasing of sewage was allowed in exceptional circumstances.
As the usual suspects will delight in telling you, there is indeed data that shows increasing numbers of sewage discharges, and this goes up significantly since 2016. In 2016, 12,637 incidents were detected. In 2022 there were 301,091. However, the reason for this is that much more monitoring now happens. In 2016, only 5% of CSOs were checked. Now 91% are scrutinised, thus the numbers are higher.
Indeed if it was down to Brexit, then how come the releases were increasing between 2016 and 2020, before we had actually left? And why did they then decline after 2020 once we had departed? In 2020 there were 403,375 and in 2022 there were 301,091.
There are only two tenuous aspects linking the issue to Brexit. Firstly, by definition the government is freer to make decisions on sewage policy without fearing punishment from the EU’s courts. That doesn’t mean they want to release more, but like all policy areas the government can now be more flexible. Secondly, after the pandemic there was a shortage of chemicals needed to treat sewage. This included ferric sulphate, much of which is produced in the EU, with four EU countries among the top exporters (2021). Many goods saw shortages, price-rises and logistical problems in that period, and still do. The shortage of lorry drivers – many of whom had retired during Covid – was a major factor, compounded by a sluggish DVLA. Brexit was only a small element exacerbating these issues, with the increased paperwork and non-tariff barriers for imports/exports.
As a result of the chemical shortages and heavy rainfall in the summer of 2021 the government adopted a different approach towards the water companies. There has long been a system of permits allowing companies to release sewage, issued for specific CSOs. Firms are only allowed to do so in certain situations stipulated in that licence – usually heavy rainfall. In normal circumstances if they dump effluent outside of those terms they are fined.
However, because of the difficult scenario, on September 1 2021 the government announced that if a firm could not get the necessary chemicals it would be allowed to release sewage outside of the terms of its permit. It would however be required to get written agreement to do so. The move only applied to sewage that had been through two stages of treatment, rather than the normal three. The temporary arrangement was terminated in January 2022, and we returned to the established permit system.
Emergency releases were also an issue discussed in the Environment Bill, introduced in 2021. The bill was concerned with bringing sewage discharges and pollution down. It obliged the Environment Secretary to intervene in these matters and required public transparency about releases. With the passage of the bill through Parliament, a Tory peer, Lord Wellington, proposed an amendment to legally require companies to bring down the amounts they were releasing.
The government initially rejected this amendment when the bill went back to the Commons, whipping its MPs to do so. This prompted a huge amount of performative outrage from the opposition parties and their allies online. ‘Tory Sewage Party’ became the online hashtag, with ‘Tories just voted to dump sewage on our beaches’ the only detail you needed to know. The usual celebrity figures pushed this endlessly.
The government’s reasoning was that the need for emergency discharges was too great, and therefore frequent fines would be too costly for the water companies, with these losses passed onto the customer. You can object to the stance and consider it soft, perhaps even believe there is an element of corruption or collusion with the private firms. However it is dishonest to overlook the progressive nature of the Environment Bill, the fact emergency sewage releases are sometimes necessary because of the infrastructure, and the fact that Labour won’t commit to fixing it.
Because of the political backlash over the amendment, the government decided to draft a similar amendment of its own to compensate – another factor that is overlooked. With this written in, the bill went through and was signed into law. Labour still tries to come up with essentially hollow opposition bills to keep hammering home the ‘Tory sewage party’ narrative.
As the data about emergency releases is misleading, so too is that concerning water quality in rivers. 14% of England’s rivers were deemed to have ‘good’ ecological status in 2023 – ahead of Germany’s 8% and Holland’s 4%. The scale is set by the EU Water Framework Directive, enacted in 2009 to monitor bodies of water across the continent of Europe. England’s score (as with other countries) has declined since 2009 – it was 25% in that year and 16% in 2015. However this is largely because the EU’s standards went up in that time. They increased the list of substances required to be tested for in 2015. Even then sewage does not count for much of the increase (36% according to Ofwat). Nitrogen and phosphorous from agriculture is a bigger factor (40%). Urban and transport pollution is also a significant contributor (18%).
Rivers are not only graded on ‘ecological’, but also ‘chemical’ status. Biased articles are keen to point out that none of England’s rivers managed to score ‘good’ on both counts. Out of 3,740 rivers, 75% were rated ‘moderate’ with 21% ‘poor’ and 4% ‘bad’. ‘Moderate’ grading is hardly much to boast about, but it could be worse.
England is the outlier in the United Kingdom. In Scotland and Wales respectively, 66% and 45% of rivers are at overall ‘good’ standard. In Northern Ireland, 52% of ‘inshore coastal waterbodies’ are good or above. Of course, England has a much larger population, surface area (meaning more rainfall and agricultural runoff) and has more industry. Commonly, the usual suspects also blame England’s lower standards on its privatised water companies, and uphold the other UK constituents as poster children for public ownership.
England is indeed the only nation in the world to have a fully privatised water industry, which has been the case since 1989. The government retains regulatory overview through the Environment Agency, but the water companies own the infrastructure and deliver the service.
I believe that water should be in the full control of the state, and thus under the scrutiny of the voters. It doesn’t make sense for private companies and the markets to be entrusted in something that is a basic need of life and society. They will always prioritise profit over performance, especially as they are monopolies. On top of that nationalisation would provide secure job opportunities as well as government revenue (once the billions are spent buying out the private companies, that is). Nationalisation, however, is not necessarily a panacea. It still requires competence, proper funding and transparency. Neither would it solve the current problem of combined sewers – the time and money to fix this will still have to come from somewhere, no matter who is running the show.
Indeed, despite the public ownership, combined sewers are still in operation in the home nations – they have 7,000 CSOs between them and these are in regular use. There is also less investment than in England, and proportionally more clean water leaks. Between 2020 and 2025 England invested more in water infrastructure than any other nation in Europe.
Both rivers and beaches have vastly improved since the bad old days. The UK meets the average of the EU – 93% of bathing waters were rated excellent. It was 70% in 2009 and was around 45% in the 1990s. Of course, we do not want to go backwards on any of these issues. Sewage releases continuing or increasing will jeopardise this record. It is therefore essential to deal with the increasing population, the dated infrastructure and any supply chain problems. As with other products, we should be able to make the treatment chemicals we need ourselves, and we should rebuild British manufacturing. Wet-wipes should be banned as planned and solutions to fat disposal should be found. Nationalisation should at least be considered, and tried out in some areas to prove its efficacy.
The purpose of this article is not to downplay the problems in our sewage system and our waters or to belittle peoples’ genuine concerns. Wanting a country as free as possible from pollution is noble. Nobody would dispute the need for a clean and safe environment, to be enjoyed by wildlife and our descendants. However, the current framing of the issue is often dishonest and political. It doesn’t consider the realities of our infrastructure, the (lack of) policies of all previous governments, the international context, the flaws in the statistics or what the proper solution must be. It simply says to the uninformed voter ‘this is bad and the fault of the Tories’ – not ‘your house will fill with effluent if we don’t discharge sewage elsewhere’.
It is yet another parlour game to propel the Labour Party into power and blame the Brexit that the liberal establishment and deep state wants to cancel. The type of people pushing the narrative will always blame the government, conservativism and Brexit, because all they are interested in is their agenda. It is the duty of fair-minded people to call this simplistic framing out wherever we see it. To engage, wearily, in some crude populist humour: we’ve got to cut the crap.
You can read more of Ed Pond’s writing here: