By Niki Hinman, Local Democracy Reporter
Banner wielding protestors banging drums, pots and pans lobbied West Berkshire Council last Wednesday night demanding it forces Thames Water to clean up its act and stop pouring sewage into the district’s rivers.
A petition with more than 1,700 signatures was handed to the council – but was rejected – with the Conservatives refusing to back it, saying it was constructed as a political dig at the Tories.
Jeers came from protesters following the debate outside.
Steve Masters (Green, Newbury Speen) said: “Our rivers have become contaminated to the highest level in 30/40 years. Court actions have fallen by 98 percent. There are 12 sewage treatment works in West Berkshire all of which have had spills. They range from double figures up to 4,100 hours at the Hampstead Norreys treatment works.”
The petition requested that the council examine and scrutinise Thames Water’s plans ‘to ensure that our waterways are clean and healthy’.
The full council meeting was asked for a formal explanation from local MPs as to why they voted down a Lords Amendment to the Environment Bill which would have placed a legal duty on water companies in England and Wales “to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage”.
MPs Laura Farris (Newbury) and John Redwood (Wokingham) voted to defeat the Lords Amendment. Alok Sharma MP (Reading West) did not vote.
Council leader Lynne Doherty (Con, Speen) said: “I don’t think anyone will argue that the level of sewage discharge is acceptable. We are unable to accept an innately political petition and an attempt to attack the Conservatives. Our local MPs are entitled to communicate with people in their own way and not told how to by you.
“Improvements were made to the Environment Act because of their intervention,” she continued. “If you were serious about this you would not have made your petition political knowing we could not and would not support it. You chase headlines. Everybody wants fish not faeces. Our approach is different to yours.”
Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West) said: “There is a lot of public disquiet about this. It is perfectly reasonable to ask our MPs to explain themselves, and it is reasonable for us to ask for an explanation. I am sure if they come we will ask the difficult questions. MPs should be writing to us.”
Carolyne Culver (Green, Ridgeway) said: “This is not a radical proposal. This is not a Green Party motion, it is a public petition. Laura Farris’s mother even signed it. I know you like to cast us as reds under the bed. It could have said sack the CEOs but it doesn’t. It just asks to bring Thames Water to our scrutiny committee and ask our MPs to explain themselves.”
Despite voting against the petition, the Tories tabled their own motion – that the council considers the level of sewage discharge by water companies is unacceptable adding ‘sewage contamination can have a devastating impact on fish and wildlife’.
Steve Ardagh-Walter (Con, Thatcham Crookham), portfolio holder for the environment said the Environment Act was welcomed as it reduces discharges from storm overflows.
“We have many more houses – so we need to and expect to demand a significant change of gear from the water companies,” he said.
“I am glad to see the government has mandated to see detailed plans on how things are going to be improved. This will not be fixed overnight, but I am confident with a shared level of commitment from this council that there will be change. We will play our part in cajoling Thames Water to do their bit.”
Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment to the Conservative motion, asking for it to ‘have some teeth,’ and push for more urgent change. It included pushing for local environment groups to have places on company boards and to levy a tax on water companies to fund the Environment Agency.
“Where is the meat? Where is the action and where is the call to arms?” said Mr Brooks who said the Tory motion was lacking in action and just welcoming everything that is being done. “You are here to lobby government.”
The Tories countered saying the amendments were trying to recreate government policy, locally and on the hoof.
After much debate, some of the Liberal Democrat amendment put forward by councillor Owen Jeffries got everyone on all sides to agree that meaningful targets and deadlines should be set, and to reduce the number of discharge licences and push for an increase in OFWAT powers.
They also voted through the amended Conservative motion which welcomed Thames Water’s initiation of a ‘significant restoration project including an end to sewage discharges for the River Pang’.
The photo above shows the sewage protestors outside the West Berkshire Council offices, and is from BBC LNPS.