On Monday, the first reading of the Inland Waters Bill and the second reading of the Environment Bill were held in the House of Lords.
The new Environment Bill, if passed, will give the Secretary of State the power to set long-term, legally binding environmental targets for at least 15 years, which will be evidence-led and set following consultation from independent expert advice.
During the reading, a number of Lords raised the issue of water quality and the levels of sewage entering rivers through storm overflows.
Lord Cameron of Dillington described the Bill as a “once-in-a-generation chance to set a course for better quality of life for all flora and fauna, including humans” in the UK, and spoke of the need to address the “appalling” static that 86% of rivers in England and Wales are not in good ecological condition.
“We have once again reverted to being the dirty man of Europe,” he said.
“Something needs to be done and done quickly […] There is a major problem of combined sewer overflows and the huge quantities of sewage we put into our rivers. What goes on is truly shocking.
“From talking to scientists, it is clear that river pollution is no simple matter. Every catchment is different and has different problems needing different solutions. We should make better use of existing catchment-based partnerships, increasing their number and formalising them within the Bill.”
The Duke of Wellington later described the statistic on water quality in England and Wales as “shameful and embarrassing” and said that he is “certain that the people of this country would wish our rivers to be cleaned up”.
In response, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, the Minister of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that the quality of rivers and other waterways is “a high priority for this Government” and that it is taking action, through the Environment Bill “to enable better join-up between water companies when they are preparing statutory long-term plans, and to acquire statutory long-term drainage and wastewater management plans”.
Lord Goldsmith also said: “We do not pretend that this is a silver bullet, nor is it the end of the story in relation to tackling this appalling crisis, as far as the Government are concerned. Nevertheless, it represents a big step forward.”
Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of environmental charity The Rivers Trust, said: “It is fantastic to see so many members of the House of Lords championing the cause of clean and healthy rivers and we hope to see the Environment Bill made much stronger as a result, with stretching targets and robust regulation, so that it delivers a water environment that can sustain and delight the next generation.
“If laws are passed, they need to be enforced by a properly-funded regulator. The government must also be held to account by a truly independent and well-funded Office of Environmental Protection. There also needs to be much greater investment in the 105 Catchment Partnerships, which are doing a vital job restoring rivers at a local level with completely inadequate funding.”
Many peers also questioned the independence and budget of the new Office of Environmental Protection, which is being set up to hold the government to account for its implementation of environmental laws created by Parliament.