As sewage debate continues, how have our MPs voted?

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St Albans MP Daisy Cooper and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami - Credit: Archant

The majority of chalk streams in the country are in our county - making the debate on whether water companies should do more to lessen the pumping of raw sewage into these precious waterways even more important. 

Chalk streams are the UK’s equivalent to tropical rainforests, according to the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. 

Their website states: "They support a huge variety of rare and vulnerable wildlife. Some of our most iconic and well-loved species - like the water vole, wild brown trout and mayflies - depend solely on these rivers to survive in Hertfordshire."

Chalk streams are globally rare - there are around 200 chalk streams on earth. Almost all are found in the UK and we have about 10 per cent in Hertfordshire.

What was the vote on?

On Wednesday last week, there was a vote on a proposed amendment to the Environment Bill regarding storm overflows. 

Storm overflows protect properties from heavy rainstorms and prevent sewage from overflowing into streets and homes.

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They are part of an older type of sewer system which carries surface water and foul water in one pipe.

During a storm event, prolonged rainfall can rapidly increase the flow in a combined sewer and cause it to become overwhelmed. Storm overflows are designed to release excess storm water into waterways - rivers, streams or the sea - when this happens.

If the Lords' Amendment 45 section 141A - put forward by the Duke of Wellington - became law, sewerage undertakers in England and Wales would have to demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage.

Raw sewage was pumped into waterways 400,000 times in 2020, according to Environment Agency figures.

How did our MPs vote?

The commons vote was  268 to 204 in favour of the Environment Bill - with 22 Tory MPs rebelling, in favour of the Duke's amendment. 

Harpenden MP Bim Afolami abstained from last week's vote, due to family matters. He has indicated he would have opposed the amendment. 

Conservative Mr Afolami told the Herts Ad:  “Unfortunately, I was unable to attend or vote on the Environment Bill debate on Wednesday as I was at a family funeral.

"We are very fortunate in Hitchin & Harpenden that we have a large number of local chalk streams, including the Ver, Lea, Mimram, Purwell, Oughton and Hiz.

"I am committed to protecting these rare habitats and have been working hard to ensure that they have the right protections against inappropriate water usage, environmental threats and future development.

"The amount of sewage discharged by water companies into our rivers is unacceptable and ministers have made it clear that sewage discharges from storm overflows must be reduced. The Environment Bill as drafted is tougher than existing powers and will deliver reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows.

"The Duke of Wellington’s amendment, while well-intentioned, is already delivered through the many measures of the Environment Bill.

"We must also be pragmatic in relation to the calls for complete elimination of storm overflows. That would require lots of new sewerage systems – initial assessments suggest total elimination would cost more than £150 billion – and could result in sewage being discharged into the streets instead during extreme rain.

"I continue to support action to reduce sewage discharges and will work with Parliamentary colleagues to deliver stronger powers to tackle these, but in a way which avoids significant costs for consumers and the risk of sewage in the street during floods.”

St Albans MP, Lib Dem Daisy Cooper, voted against the Bill, saying on Twitter: "Tories used their majority to push through this awful measure."

What's next?

The Bill will be revisited in the Lords today, before another Commons vote on Wednesday.