England’s rivers are in poor health. Polluted by a chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic, too many of our waterways are inhospitable places for people and wildlife.
There are no quick fixes to reverse the damage caused by our ageing infrastructure and pressure from farming and development, and this government has done much more than its predecessors. But there’s far more we can do to pass on our rivers in a better state for future generations.
Together with over 40 colleagues, I am proud to be part of a campaign to restore the arteries of our green and pleasant land.
We recognise that people want to see more action – and that little platoons of farmers and community groups are ready to help. That’s why we’ve published a manifesto with six ways the Government can accelerate its efforts to tackle pollution and empower communities with funding and tools to restore their waterways.
We must make polluters pay for the damage they’re causing to England’s rivers and seas. Fines need to be tougher so they’re not seen as just a “cost of doing business” but a driver for change. The Government’s plan to lift the cap on civil fines is a welcome step.
Still, we can go further by linking shareholder dividends and executive pay to environmental performance. There should be no reward for water firms who break the law.
But any money raised from fines should go back to the affected communities. Ministers should create a River Restoration Fund using revenue from fining polluting water firms. If we had reserved all the money raised in fines since 2017, we could have provided more than £140 million in grants to support communities’ local river restoration initiatives.
This money could go a long way in helping farmers, conservation organisations and local projects, like Action on the River Kennet (ARK) in my constituency, in their efforts to clean up our waterways so nature can thrive and people can use them recreationally.
Communities also need more tools to clean up their rivers. Ministers can empower them by designating more river bathing water sites – at least 22 more across England every five years. These sites are the only bodies of water constantly monitored by water firms, informing communities of pollution levels and driving action to reduce all sources of pollution.
By designating more, we can replicate the success of coastal sites, where 93 per cent of the 400 bathing sites have now been classed as good or excellent.
As individuals, we also need to take personal responsibility for stopping our sewers from becoming blocked. Every year 300,000 sewer blockages are caused by unflushable items like wet wipes, sanitary products, and nappies, costing billpayers £100 million to clear. The Government should introduce a clear labelling system to stop people from flushing the items that lead to blockages and make our crumbling Victorian sewers more likely to pump waste into rivers and seas during heavy rain.
Businesses must take more responsibility for reducing pollution in our rivers and seas too, not least housing developers. It will take time for the £56 billion investment from the Government’s storm overflow reduction plan to upgrade our sewage system. A single roof can collect as much as 100 homes’ wastewater, which is currently entering the sewer and leading to spills during heavy rain.
We should make water firms statutory consultees of planning applications and ensure new homes have sustainable draining, so we don’t pump more rainwater into our struggling infrastructure, making the problem worse.
Finally, we need to reward farmers for tackling pollution and restoring rivers. They’re the guardians of our countryside, but decades of the EU’s disastrous Common Agriculture Policy pushed farm businesses to increasingly adopt unsustainable practices, which are responsible for 40 per cent of the damage to our waterways.
Ministers need to continue the Environmental Land Management schemes rollout to pay farmers to switch to sustainable practices, reduce pollution, and restore rivers. They should also reform planning rules to make building slurry stores on farms easier, limiting agricultural runoff into our rivers.
The crisis facing English rivers is complex, and has been building up for decades. It falls to us to put them on course to recover.
But I urge ministers to build on their excellent steps to date and adopt the manifesto unveiled by the Conservative Environment Network. We must act now to deliver clean and healthy rivers that communities can enjoy and can flow once again through our green and pleasant land for generations to come.
First published by ConservativeHome. Danny Kruger MP (Devizes) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.