Dave Carr, Newham and East London Socialist Party

Faced with setbacks in upcoming council elections and losing the next general election, Rishi Sunak’s government has embarked on announcing a series of populist policies aimed at shoring up the Tories’ dwindling support.

Its latest offering is imposing ‘unlimited fines’ on the polluting, privately owned water utilities for illegally discharging untreated sewage into our waterways.

This is a partial U-turn by the government. In its 2021 Environment Act, it refused to make it illegal to dump sewage in rivers. Instead, it called on water companies to “secure a progressive reduction in the adverse harm” caused by sewage dumps.

The current number of discharges beggars belief – an average of 824 a day. These discharges also contain microplastics, persistent chemicals and antimicrobial-resistant pathogens.

Legal dumping

However, even under the new ‘tougher’ government proposals, water companies will still be able to legally dump untreated sewage in ‘exceptional weather circumstances’.

While sewage and wastewater dumping from water companies accounts for 36% of waterway pollution, another 40% comes from agricultural pollution, mainly slurry from mega-farms. Tory environment secretary Thérèse Coffey has ignored this aspect of pollution.

The current system of fines levied by the Environment Agency – £144 million in the last seven years – has clearly had zero effect on preventing dumping. And the government won’t enforce companies to invest in water treatment infrastructure to prevent discharges in the first place.

The fines pale beside the £2 billion profits made by the water companies each year since the industry was privatised 30 years ago.

Labour’s Keir Starmer has criticised the Tory plan as being “flimsy”. But he refuses to countenance the one measure that can make a real difference to the quality of our waterways – nationalisation!

Only by removing the profit motive from the industry would it then be possible to direct resources solely to protecting the environment and public health.