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The government’s approach to sewage – and Britain’s rivers – is full of shit

The government’s approach to sewage – and Britain’s rivers – is full of shit

There are good, natural reasons why flooding rivers and the sea with sewage is a terrible idea. It’s also deeply unpopular

We all know that the instant politicians get elected they lose all connection with the electorate, but surely the gap has never been wider than when the government decided that a soothing word was all that was needed to conquer the human disgust at shit. 

Revulsion from excrement is common to all people in all cultures, as Charles Darwin pointed out. It has, he said, an evolutionary purpose: inborn, involuntary and self-protective. This repugnance greatly reduces our chances of ingesting disease-carrying microorganisms found on excrement, vomit, decayed meat and blood.

We can overcome our disgust when faeces have a benefit to us: most obviously in fertilising and conditioning soil; muck-spreading remains an important part of modern British agriculture. The traditional use of night-soil – euphemism for human faeces – as fertiliser still continues in many societies, though it can be dangerous if used uncomposted. Dried dung is used as fuel in many developing countries; dried elephant droppings make traditional tinder when making fire.

Faecal transplant is an evolving medical practice in which faeces from a healthy donor are transferred to the guts of a patient, restoring the gut flora we all need for digestion. But while excrement has its points, it is something we instinctively turn away from.

You can find instructions to keep away from excrement in Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the bible. Horses and cattle leave their droppings in a certain part of the field, and graze the rest. We know it in the deepest part of ourselves, hard-wired in our DNA: shit is bad.

So when the government tells us it’s actually perfectly alright, we are inclined to disagree. Let’s recap.

The Environment Bill is having a difficult time. We obviously need good environmental policy, since we all live in the environment, but legislation is constantly compromised by economic pressures. As the bill was going through the Lords, the peers came up with a good idea: let’s place legal duties on the water companies to reduce discharges of human excrement into the environment. It’s not the most radical proposal you’ve ever heard in your life.

This went back to the Commons – and they chucked the amendment out. The voting was 265 against 202; 22 Tory MPs voted the other way. That was when the subject of this piece came into contact with the fan. 

Suddenly we were asking this: how much raw sewage are we actually getting lumbered with? And we learned that figures from the Environment Agency show that human excrement was pumped into the waterways of England on 400,000 occasions in 2020. That adds up to more than three million hours: time in which turds, wet wipes, condoms and other testimony of human life had been hooshed into rivers, streams and coastal waters.

The Environment Agency permits discharge after extreme rainfall: occasions when it would otherwise back up into streets and houses. The European Court of Justice permits such outpourings “in exceptional cases”. Have there been 400,000 exceptional cases in the course of a year? Or is this a matter of routine?

I write these words after a cheerful hour paddling my kayak on the River Chet in Norfolk. It’s beautiful. And polluted. A report published last September, Troubled Waters, was commissioned by the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and the National Trust. It found that only 14 per cent of England’s rivers are in a good ecological state. They are polluted by agricultural waste, pollution from abandoned mines and, yes, raw sewage.

Many environmental problems are hard to grasp: rainforests are too far away, melting ice caps are not part of our daily business and climate breakdown is difficult to get a handle on. Many people prefer an easy denial: always tempting with an inconvenient truth.

But everyone who ever lived can get hold of the idea that filling the nation with raw sewage is bad … and might possibly draw the conclusion such thinking is fundamental to traditional government policy on the environment. Recent discussion of the government’s generous tolerance of sleaze among its own has led to a certain cynicism in all parties. Just how many doorsteps are they planning to shit on?

The water companies of England are in private hands. Welsh Water is a not-for-profit organisation and Scottish Water is a publicly-owned organisation. The privatisation of water companies was part of the grand vision of Margaret Thatcher, who took a Panglossian view of capitalism: once public utilities were in private hands it would be better for everybody. What could possibly go wrong?

All the same, she at least understood that sewage is a tricky subject. The water companies only went private in 1989, so they wouldn’t affect the election of 1987; there were fears that people might not trust profit-making companies to keep their environment free from raw sewage. 

The debts of the public water companies were wiped out to make the acquisition more attractive to private investors: as if it wasn’t already attractive enough to have a monopoly on a product essential to life. And though these days you have a choice about telephone, gas, electricity, broadband and – to an extent – transport, you have no choice at all about your water company. 

Research from the University of Greenwich points out that the English water companies have run up huge dents – and since 1989 they have between them paid a total of £57 billion in bonuses to shareholders. Meanwhile, water bills have risen 40 per cent above inflation.

The government response to the business about the Environment Bill has been bizarre. First they said that the current situation is just fine; raw sewage is not a problem. Then they said maybe it was, but fixing it would cost up to £660 billion. In other words, we have a choice between excrement and poverty.

Interested organisations rolled their eyes at this figure. Surfers against Sewage described this as “misinformation designed to scare the public”. The Rivers Trust said “no one is proposing digging up our entire sewage system and starting from scratch”. 

So then the government told us that the amendment wasn’t actually needed: they were going to do it anyway, it just didn’t need to be written down. George Eustice, the environment secretary, said: “We will write what was always government policy into law to give people the reassurance they need.” It was astute of him to realise that when it comes to raw sewage, people do like reassurance – especially when there are 400,000 other offences to be taken into consideration.

The fact is that the whole question of water management needs an overhaul. It’s not just about pipes and reservoirs: it’s also about reforesting upstream, reducing grazing and with it the compaction of the earth, reconnecting rivers with their flood plains, encouraging wetlands, reintroducing beavers, reconfiguring water courses so they don’t dump all the rainfall downstream at once … our water system might have been deliberately designed to maximise the impact of heavy rain.

A recent Yougov poll revealed that 88 per cent of British people see our lakes, rivers and streams as “a national treasure”. Respondents said they revel in their waterways and use them for kayaking, not-inaptly named poohsticks and outdoor drinking: three excellent sports.

But these positive views make up less than half the story. You don’t need a poll to establish the fact that 100 per cent of the people are against living with raw sewage. It may have surprised the government but it’s pretty obvious to the rest of us: if you take the side of shit you’re going to run into some pretty committed opposition.

Simon Barnes is a journalist and author, previously working at the Times both as its chief sports writer and as a wildlife columnist.

With thanks to our coalition members: a network of organisations similarly committed to achieving Net Zero