Raw sewage is being routinely released into rivers in Stockport by United Utilities, new data reveals. 

Figures provided by The Rivers Trust outlined more than 1,000 sewage spills that were recorded in my Stockport constituency last year, endangering all those who fish and swim in local rivers such as the Tame and Goyt, as well as damaging the precious habitats for aquatic life, birds and mammals.

In total United Utilities was responsible for 1,078 spills and 23 instances of storm overflows in Stockport in 2020.

This is worrying news given the Government’s decision to vote against an Environment Bill amendment which would have compelled companies like United Utilities to clean up their act.

In the recent series of votes on the Environment Bill, I joined my Labour colleagues in voting to end the routine discharge of raw sewage into rivers and seas. Sadly though, Conservative MPs were whipped to vote against the cross-party amendment tabled by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords. This meant the amendment was defeated and raw sewage will now continue to be discharged into rivers as a result.

Although the Government has been forced to make a partial U-turn this week in the face of a rebellion on its own backbenches, the legislation will still not ensure water companies spend the millions of pounds of profits they generate every year to improve their infrastructure, rather than lining the pockets of their shareholders.

The amendment to ban the release of raw sewage has now returned to the House of Lords and MPs are expected to vote on the proposal to end sewage discharges again in the coming weeks.  

In the past year alone, raw sewage was discharged into UK rivers and seas more than 400,000 times, with almost 3,000 discharges into UK coastal bathing waters during the May-September bathing season alone, severely impacting coastal communities. The UK is ranked last in the EU for bathing water quality. None of our rivers are in a healthy condition, with none meeting good chemical standards and only 14% meeting good ecological standards.

This has to stop. As well as tabling a series of Written Parliamentary Questions for the Government to answer on this issue last year, I led a debate in the House of Commons in March to mark World Water Day in which I criticised the track record of companies such as United Utilities.

The latest set of figures show that penalising companies isn’t enough. As I’ve previously pointed out in Parliament, United Utilities was fined £700,000 pounds in 2014 for dumping thousands of tonnes of untreated sewage into the River Medlock in Greater Manchester, £300,000 pounds in 2017 for allowing drinking supplies to be contaminated with a parasite after animal waste seeped into an underground tank, and a further £200,000 in 2018 for supplying ‘inadequately disinfected water’ that was not suitable to drink to thousands of households.

There must be better regulation, enforced by stringent regulation. Better still, water companies should be brought back into public hands. The UK has the only fully privatised water system in the world, and our nation’s health is too important to leave to the mercy of big corporations who only look at their bottom lines. 

There is already overwhelming support in this country to bring water companies back into public hands, with 63% in favour, while Scotland’s publicly-owned Scottish Water is the most trusted utility company in Britain.

That option must be considered if companies like United Utilities continue to pollute our waterways.

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