River pollution has become a leading issue on doorsteps during the countdown to the local elections on Thursday.
Thousands of seats are being contested across England, the largest number since 2019 when the Conservatives lost control of several councils. These are the first local elections since the Guardian revealed the hidden scandal of the scale of raw sewage pollution in rivers, pushing the issue into the mainstream political debate.
Four years ago, the data had to be extracted from water companies and the regulator via multiple environmental information requests, to force publication of what was only partial data showing the amount of raw sewage discharges from storm overflows into rivers. Since then, water companies and the Environment Agency have begun publishing the information annually and the topic has been taken up by the main national political parties.
The failure to invest in infrastructure over decades while tens of billions were paid out in dividends, the complex, privately owned water company structure and the lack of teeth shown by regulators are all now under the spotlight.
And the raw sewage discharges are still continuing. The latest Environment Agency figures show that last year, raw sewage was pumped into England’s waterways via storm overflows for 1.75m hours – 825 times a day on average.
Ashley Smith, the founder of the campaign group Windrush against Sewage Pollution (Wasp), who has spent the past six years investigating sewage pollution in the river, said: “The public were kept in the dark by government and the captured regulators but as campaigners dragged the dirty secrets out into the open, public awareness and disgust rapidly followed.
“Without bold and brutally honest media reporting we would still be paddling around in ignorance and other people’s sewage. Now we have to force the sewage scandal out as well with radical reform.”
For those standing for election in Smith’s local district council, West Oxfordshire, the issue of sewage is at the top of the agenda. Pressure over the issue has led to Thames Water publishing a real-time sewage discharge map highlighting in some cases hundreds of hours of raw sewage discharges. Sewage discharges from the Witney treatment works have repeatedly led to fish deaths and pollution, and the company has now committed to an £8m upgrade at the treatment plant. Today, all candidates for the Witney seat are talking about sewage.
Barry Wheatley, the chair of the West Oxfordshire Green party, who is standing for election on the district council, said: “We have been fighting against river pollution alongside the admirable Wasp team for more than six years now … It is great that the other political parties are now catching up with the problem and personally I don’t mind if they have just realised that the issue needs to be addressed as long as it is not just words to win an election.”
The party is campaigning for water companies to be taken back into public ownership. “We need change, not just words. So far there is nothing to make us believe that real change will happen under either of the major parties without the Greens and others continuing to fight for radical change in the water industry to make it a public service again.”
Ruth Smith, who is standing for Labour in Witney East, has the issue of sewage and pollution on her election leaflets. “It is an issue on the doorstep. Labour councillors at West Oxfordshire have been campaigning hard on cleaning up our rivers and streams.”
“I think sewage is an issue generally,” said Conservative candidate for Witney West Thomas Ashby. “It is something that no one wants and luckily here in Witney there is a plan to increase the Thames Water facility by some margin, so that is something I am getting across to people on the doorstep.”
Andy Graham, the Liberal Democrat leader of the council, who took over control of the authority in an alliance with Labour and the Green party last year, said he was standing on his party’s record on the issue.
“Since we took over, we just got on with getting something done locally to bring Thames Water to account,” he said. “We are now doing a mapping exercise across the whole district to look at the defective infrastructure – it is the first time this has been done anywhere in the country.”
A poll by River Action shows public concern about river pollution has soared. The findings revealed 94% of the public support the drive for healthy rivers by 2030, and almost half saying their voting decision would be influenced if healthy rivers were a top priority in a political party’s manifesto.
Despite the attention of all the major political parties, however, the state of rivers in England and Wales remains dire. No English river is considered healthy, and in Wales only 40% of rivers are deemed to have achieved good biological status. The climate crisis and population growth are adding pressures on already vulnerable river systems.
According to the Rivers Trust, pollution from sewage, both treated and untreated, caused 53% of English rivers to fail to meet good standards, and agricultural pollution amounted to about 40% of the reasons for failure. The use of fertilisers and pesticides and the intensive farming of livestock and poultry contribute to poor water quality.
In the four years since the 2019 elections, the light shone on sewage discharges into rivers has enabled the public to challenge water companies and politicians with the facts.
Becky Malby, of Ilkley Clean River Group, whose campaigning led to a section of the Yorkshire river becoming the first in the UK to be given bathing water status, said the issue of raw sewage discharges had been driven to the top of the agenda by campaign groups across the country.
“People have been outraged that our rivers and seas are being used as open sewers and mobilising people around this has been no problem,” she said. “Everyone thought they had paid their taxes, they had paid their bills, and they thought their sewage was being treated. People were horrified to find that isn’t the case. So they turned to their local representatives, MPs and politicians, to the companies and regulators and at every turn they struggled to get heard.
“The fact that this is now an election issue is an absolute testament to democracy – it means that local people who really care about something can get it on the agenda and reminds our regulators and politicians they are accountable to us.”
In south Devon, where the Conservative-led South Hams district council is being contested, community groups, landowners, swimmers and river users last month united to create a “river champions” network to try to enhance the health of the River Avon.
Louise Wainwright, of Bigbury Net Zero, said: “Suddenly, everything is different when the conversations are about why there is so much sewage in our rivers. Everyone knows about this and wants something done about it. Meetings are now very well attended, landowners and ordinary people are signing up to undertake river water quality monitoring and offering support in many ways from hosting events to fundraising.”
River pollution has been seized upon by the Liberal Democrats as a key challenge to the Conservatives in the south-west of England. Lee Bonham, the Lib Dem candidate for the South Hams district council ward of Loddiswell and Aveton Gifford, said: “Water quality and the environment is one of the two top issues being brought up on the doorstep as we campaign, which is wonderful to see.”
The Green party, which is contesting 14 seats in South Hams, has “fairer greener waterways” as a key manifesto pledge.
The Conservative group did not respond to a request for comment.