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Invest fines from polluting water companies to restore rivers, says new Tory environment manifesto

A new manifesto unveiled today by members of the Conservative Environment Network’s Parliamentary Caucus, outlining ways the government can clean up the UK's rivers, seas, and waterways, has called for revenue raised from fining polluting water firms to be invested in local initiatives to tackle pollution.

The policy would see all money raised from fines handed out by the Environment Agency (EA) allocated to a new government fund or given to a third party like the National Lottery Heritage to provide communities, organisations, and farmers with grants to restore their local waterways.

If the government reserved the money raised by fines imposed by the EA to tackle water pollution since 2017, over £140 million could have been invested in local initiatives. Now that the government has committed to lift the cap on civil fines - the most common penalty - the EA will likely raise more revenue from fines, unlocking millions more for restoring waterways.

The manifesto, which 40 CEN MPs and peers signed, also calls for the government to:

  • Introduce a clear labelling system to stop people from flushing items like wet wipes, sanitary products and nappies that contribute to 300,000 sewer blockages a year, polluting our rivers and seas and costing bill payers £100 million annually to clear.

  • Designate at least 22 new river bathing water sites across England every five years, replicating the success of the coastal system, which spurred efforts to clean up our seas. In 1990, only 28 per cent of coastal bathing water sites met that time's high standard. Today, 93 per cent of the 400 sites are good or excellent.

  • Roll out the Environmental Land Management scheme, which will pay farmers to restore waterways and tackle flooding, and deploy sustainable farming methods reducing runoff from agriculture responsible for 40 per cent of damage to waterways.

  • Reform planning rules to build more reservoirs, fast-track on-farm reservoirs and slurry stores, set minimum water efficiency standards to tackle wasted water, make water firms statutory consultees on planning applications, and require new homes to have sustainable drainage.

  • Reform nutrient neutrality requirements to unlock the 120,000 new homes currently blocked across 74 local authority areas by creating a private market for developers to fund river catchment restoration to enable existing polluters to adopt cleaner practices.

The Conservative Environment Network says the proposals will accelerate the government's efforts to tackle water pollution, strengthen the UK's water security, and empower communities with new bathing water sites and funds to restore rivers locally.

CEN MP Philip Dunne (Ludlow) commented: "It is time to bring the ‘polluter pays’ principle into practice to tackle the pollution of our rivers. Not only should fines for water firms which illegally pollute be increased, but we should also ensure the money raised is invested back into fixing the source of the pollution. Creating a River Restoration Fund with these fines could help pay for local initiatives to tackle pollution in the catchment and ensure our rivers are clean, thriving places for nature and recreation.

"Our Victorian sewerage infrastructure is breaking, wasting water and polluting our rivers and seas. Chronic river pollution is now delaying development across the country, slowing economic growth. This year's drought has also exposed that we have neglected our water security for too long. All of these challenges are being made worse by climate change.

“There are no quick fixes, but this manifesto sets out six pragmatic, conservative ideas that will finally start tackling these long-term challenges. I’m delighted that so many Conservative colleagues are backing this CEN campaign to clean up our rivers."

Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network, commented: “England’s rivers are in a poor state. These problems have built up over decades due to underinvestment in infrastructure, poor enforcement of the law, harmful EU farming subsidies, and a sclerotic planning system. With public concern about rivers greater than ever, we have a collective duty to protect and restore these much-loved natural assets.

“This manifesto builds on the positive steps taken by the government recently to clean up our rivers and improve water security. Backed by dozens of MPs from across the Conservative Party, it sets out a comprehensive plan to address the principal pressures on rivers, seas, and waterways.

“We won’t solve these challenges overnight. But the government should act now to crack down harder on illegal pollution, while empowering communities and businesses to put our rivers on course to recovery.”

Joan Edwards, director of policy and public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts, commented:We welcome CEN’s manifesto. The public is really angry about the state of our rivers and seas. Every single one of England’s rivers and waterways is polluted, so urgent action is required. We need new policies to ensure water companies and developers stop polluting so that we can all benefit from clean, natural places where wildlife can thrive once more, where people can swim without fear of disease, and from which we can derive drinking water which is untainted by pollutants.

“It’s also crucial that we support farmers though the new Environmental Land Management schemes to stop farm pollution. Incentives to reduce soil, fertiliser and pesticide run-off into rivers is key and will also make farmers more resilient in the face of rising input costs and a changing climate. Ambitious farm schemes are an absolutely vital part of the Government honouring its commitments to tackle the nature and climate crisis.”

Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust, commented: “The Rivers Trust warmly welcomes these proposed policies from the CEN, and we hope very much that the government will take them on board as a contribution to its commitment to delivering the 25 year environment plan and leaving a better environment for the next generation. There has never been greater public concern about the water environment; these measures could be an important part of a broader strategy to restore our previous rivers and lakes to good health.”

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