MP votes to protect chalk streams as sewage debate returns to commons

The river Ivel at Radwell is dry. Picture: Catherine Wilmers

The River Ivel is one of Hertfordshire's vitally important chalk streams - Credit: Archant

MPs were back in the commons yesterday evening voting on a government concession to cut the dumping of raw sewage in our chalk streams and other waterways. 

Last week, the Conservative MP for North East Herts - Sir Oliver Heald - rebelled against the government by favouring the Duke of Wellington's amendment which would make it illegal for untreated waste to be dumped in our waterways. 

Herts and the surrounding area is home to most chalk streams in the world - these are vitally important habitats. 

South Cambs MP Anthony Browne voted with the government but shared concerns about the sewerage, while Bim Afolami, MP for Hitchin, abstained due to family matters but also shared concerns. 

Mid Beds MP Nadine Dorries and Stephen McPartland, MP for Stevenage, both voted with the Government.

The Government's concession will legally require water firms to make a “progressive reduction” in dumping raw sewage.

MPs voted 283 to 163 in the latest vote - with Sir Oliver and Anthony Browne, MP for South Cambridgeshire, both voting in favour of the concession.

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The Duke of Wellington's amendment would have placed a new legal duty on water companies to take all reasonable steps to prevent sewage being discharged.

North East Hertfordshire MP Sir Oliver Heald. Picture: Nikki Powell

North East Hertfordshire MP Sir Oliver Heald. Picture: Nikki Powell - Credit: Archant

About the latest vote, Sir Oliver told this newspaper: "Since my rebellion I have been discussing the way forward with colleagues and the Government has now agreed to place a legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce sewage overflows in line with the proposals of Philip Dunne MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.

"Although there is still a desire by some to have a justiciable duty, which would enable the water companies to be sued, I think the new overall package works.

"There will be a national plan to reduce sewage overflows and reporting by water companies of their overflows. There will now be a duty on water companies to progressively reduce them, enforceable by the Secretary of State.

"The Regulator will set targets for the water companies and allow them the financial ability to perform them.

"In the last debate, I suggested to the minister a more concise and better targeted duty on water companies and was surprised the Government had not produced such an amendment. Hence my rebellion.

"If the targets are not met, this may be capable of justification if there were particular exceptional weather events, but if the Secretary of State failed to act in the face of ‘business as usual’, I imagine he would end up in court under Judicial Review."