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  • by Karma Loveday

River Action: manifestos provide “little to get excited about” on water

The general election manifestos of the main parties provide “little to get excited about,” according to River Action chief executive James Wallace.

In a blog on the party pledges, Wallace welcomed the mentions of water pollution but said: “Whichever party forms the the next government has a long way to go to inspire belief that significant action will be taken to save our rivers, lakes and seas over the next parliament, as key measures were limited or missing from the manifestos”. He said these included:

  • Sewage – significant reform of Ofwat’s failed regulation of the water industry to end decades of profiteering and pollution, and restructuring and refinancing failing water companies linking environmental and shareholder performance, putting people and planet before profits. 

  • Agriculture – strengthening regulation on intensive livestock farming and enforcing the law, limiting density of factory farms in catchments, supporting farmers with environmental incentives, enabling nutrient trading – turning farm waste into resource – and increasing farmers’ share of food pricing.

  • Water scarcity – restoring wetlands, building more reservoirs and fixing leaking water pipes so we do not run out of water; delivered through a nationwide plan to secure water within and between catchments, while decreasing demand for abstraction, protecting our most vulnerable waterways like chalk streams. 

  • Monitoring and enforcement – properly funding environmental protection agencies and water industry regulators, publishing independent pollution monitoring and sharing data with the public and between regulators, equipping and instructing them to take firm action against polluters. 

  • Protecting public health – ensuring the Environment Agency properly monitors our rivers and publishes transparent data and guidance about when it is safe to use rivers, and making water companies introduce tertiary treatment of final effluent in areas of high use and risk.”

Wallace ran through the water pledges in the manifestos and made among the following observations about the three main parties: 

Labour – Banning bonuses and introducing criminal charges for persistent law-breakers are welcome moves, but fall well short of “the urgent systemic root and branch regulatory reform needed”. There is little detail on how Labour plans to accelerate the penalty and prosecution process, move to a system of independent monitoring, or what ‘special measures’ will entail. “For example, what is their commitment to ensuring the taxpayer does not bail out a failing water company like Thames Water?” Moreover, “Labour has remained quiet on agricultural pollution, likely due to its targeting of rural votes and pacifying the National Farmers’ Union” and “there is nothing on water scarcity – how can a party claim to prioritise growth when our freshwater, therefore economy, is at risk of drying up?”

Conservative – The manifesto offers more of the same, and promises are marred by “almost daily news about the failing water industry” which the party has long overseen. Wallace also wondered: “Why does it take an election to announce reviewing Ofwat’s dreadful price review process?”

Liberal Democrat – Polluted waters feature as the top Lib Dem environmental message, and while the party has long trailed its sewage policies, the manifesto included “a few interesting new ideas” including on ‘blue flag’ standards for rivers, places for environmental reps on water company boards, and the creation of an Environmental Rights Act. Wallace also welcomed the idea of a sewage tax, the proposed abolition of Ofwat, support for a single social tariff, and enforcing law on storm overflows, though he said the latter “should extend to other water pollution including agriculture”. He noted, though, that there was limited reference to an increase in Environment Agency inspections, publishing independent pollution monitoring data or policy on water shortages. He said: “The Lib Dems have an opportunity to position themselves as the party for water and broaden focus out from just sewage pollution.”


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