The politics of poo: How sewage-strewn beaches became Britain’s new election battleground

The politics of poo: How sewage-strewn beaches became Britain’s new election battleground
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 05 April 2023 04:46

Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are under fire over the rancid state of Britain’s waterways.


LONDON — British politics has long been seen as a shitshow. It’s taken on a more literal meaning of late.

Rishi Sunak’s government is scrambling to manage rising public anger over the dumping of untreated sewage into Britain’s rivers and oceans by privately-owned water firms. The unpalatable results are often visible to the naked eye, enraging locals and holidaymakers and rendering once-proud British beaches unusable for days at a time.

Under mounting pressure — three separate national newspapers now have "clean water" campaigns running — Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey pushed out a raft of measures Tuesday aimed at improving water quality, including the threat of unlimited fines for water companies that break the rules.

The announcement — the government’s second such action plan in seven months — is unlikely to quell public discontent. Britain’s waterways have become the focus of toxic claims and counter-claims since a viral social media campaign two years ago.

Tory MPs in coastal and rural seats fear the issue may cost them dearly in forthcoming local elections and in the general election next year, as opposition parties focus on a group dubbed “the dog-walker demographic.”

“It might not be the thing I hear about most often from voters,” said one Conservative lawmaker who represents a popular seaside town. “But it is the subject of the most vitriol.”

Talking shit

England is the only country in the world with a fully-privatized water and sewage system, run since the late 1980s by large — and wildly unpopular — regional monopolies.

These water companies frequently discharge untreated sewage into rivers and oceans, a practice permitted in supposedly exceptional circumstances — for example, when sewers are overflowing due to heavy rainfall.

The firms may, however, be acting illegally if they release such material when conditions are dry, or if they are not treating enough of the waste before releasing it.

And figures released last week by the Environment Agency reiterated the scale of the problem, with an average of 825 sewage spills per day in 2022. This represented a 19 percent fall on the previous year’s total, but was still high enough to trigger another wave of bleak headlines for a government that stands accused of failing to regulate a profiteering industry.

Indeed, Tory MPs have been feeling the heat since a series of widely-shared memes and social media posts first took off in 2021 via an article on left-wing site EvolvePolitics, accusing Conservatives of “voting to allow” water companies to continue dumping sewage in rivers.

They named scores of Tory MPs who blocked an opposition amendment to the Environment Bill which sought to place a legal duty on companies to stop spills.

Tories insist the amendment was unworkable and the claims misleading, and condemned the posts for fueling online abuse that has barely relented two years later. To this day, Tory MPs’ inboxes are frequently stacked high with angry messages about sewage.

Fight them on the beaches

Ministers are now desperate to get back onto the front foot as the parties’ campaign machines whir into life ahead of May’s local elections.

Water holds an unusual position at the intersection of competing party interests, explains Glen O’Hara, professor of contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University and author of "The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain."

“The Tories now hold a lot more seaside towns than they once did, and you’ve got a direct first-past-the-post problem where you’re literally shoving out excrement, in people’s eye lines.”

A combined sewer overflow pipe on Ryde Beach on the Isle of Wight which has suffered from sewage pollution in recent years | by Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images

The issue has already helped the Green Party make inroads in normally true-blue Home Counties, while the Lib Dems — hammering their own sewage campaign relentlessly — are often the main opposition in such areas. Labour too is making progress in coastal towns such as Worthing, where the local council turned red last year.

“People are really horrified at the amount of raw sewage that we see dumped in our sea locally,” said Helena Dollimore, Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Conservative-held Hastings and Rye. “It disrupts our community and our way of life as a seaside town.”

She said the issue was consistently raised on the doorstep, with seafront cafes experiencing a loss of revenue as holidaymakers are put off, and highlighted incidents of people forced to attend hospital after swimming in the sea.

Jenny Jones, a Green Party peer, said: “When people see it in their everyday lives, and they walk down paths that stink, and they can’t let their dogs paddle — it hits home.”

In deep water

Conservatives, however, accuse Labour and the Lib Dems of “weaponizing” a problem that the government is actively seeking to address. Another Tory MP in a coastal seat commented: “Lib Dems never let facts get in the way of a good campaign.”

Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, argued the issue should really be owned by traditional Tory campaigners. He said keeping waterways clean “really speaks to Conservative environmentalism,” because “we know how attached people are to their local rivers and streams — it’s a deeply felt thing.”

Hall added that, contrary to opposition claims, Tory MPs have been “campaigning hard” on the topic and that Tuesday’s raft of announcements was further evidence of an awareness in government that “this is a serious issue.”

Bob Seely, a Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, added: “I am confident that, fringe activists apart, the more we advertise what we are doing, the more people will be won over.”

But there is little sign yet of ministers being given much of a hearing.

They are not currently helped by the fact that their chief messenger is Coffey — best known as disaster-struck former PM Liz Truss’ best friend and campaign manager, who accepted a demotion to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) when Truss was forced from office last fall. A recent survey of party members found Coffey was the least popular of all 31 members of the Cabinet.

She is under fire from multiple angles, targeted not just over sewage but for a failure to offer detailed plans to reduce carbon emissions, and over her tense relationship with the National Farmers’ Union.

On Tuesday she was accused by Lib Dems of reheating old policies with a revived pledge to ban plastic-based wet wipes — and was even asked by journalists if she would resign as she launched the action plan at London’s Wetland Center.

“DEFRA is arguably one of the most important departments for people’s day-to-day lives,” noted one lobbyist in frequent contact with the ministry, "but it’s always treated as a department for [ministers] who are either on the way up or on their way down — or as a punishment."

With an election looming, Coffey doesn’t have long to turn this rather foul-smelling tide in her party’s favor.

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