'Our rivers are not supposed to be open sewers'

1860s... Workers competing Joseph Bazalgette's Northern Outfall sewer at Becton. Picture: Totally Th

Workers competing Joseph Bazalgette's Northern Outfall sewer at Becton in the 1860s - Credit: Totally Thames

There are certain things we British just don’t like to talk about - poo is one of them!

Few of us bother to think what happens when we flush and walk away. As long as the air freshener is at hand and the toilet is left clean we think it is someone else’s problem .

So the recent Panorama documentary that revealed water companies released raw sewage into our rivers more than 400,000 times last year, was quite a disgusting shock. And it’s not just poo -- residents in one part of London now call the stretch of the Thames riverbank in their area the ‘Great Wet Wipe Reef’.

This stinks: both physically and metaphorically. That’s why last week I was grilling witnesses to the Environmental Audit Select Committee to get to the bottom of the problem – excuse the pun!

Water companies say they are operating within the law, and any spills are rare, minor and unintentional. But that’s not the data which we were given. It is clear that these are not spills – spills are what happens with a cup of tea – these are deliberate discharges of hundreds of tonnes of raw sewage into our rivers and brooks. Despite being legally required to seek a permit to use storm overflows and dump sewage, and then only allowed to do it during periods of exceptionally high rainfall, our local sewage treatment works down at Mogden appears (along with others) to be doing it on a daily basis.

MP for Brent North Barry Gardiner is angry at how austerity has hit the NHS in North West London.

MP for Brent North Barry Gardiner is angry at how austerity has hit the NHS in North West London. - Credit: Archant

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Only four water companies were actually prosecuted for illegal dumping in the last year. That is 400,000 illegal dumpings of raw sewage but only four prosecutions!

The Victorians took this shit seriously. The famous engineer Joseph Bazalgette built an amazing sewer network for London 150 years ago that was able to cope with 10 times the volume of sewage the city was producing then. He knew that the city’s population would expand. But now that Victorian network is literally bursting at the seams. Government must act to get the water companies to invest properly into this creaking infrastructure.

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Our rivers are not supposed to be open sewers. 

It may seem incredible that there is only one river in the whole of England that has secured certified Bathing Water status. That should be a cause not just for national shame, but for action. Prosecutions must follow. Infrastructure must be modernised and our rivers restored to the beautiful places for nature and recreation that they once were.

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