Working towards a sustainable water sector in a changing world - September 2017

The ever-changing nature of the world around us is putting pressure on a vital resource we often take for granted in this country – water. Pouring it down the drain or flushing the toilet is second nature to many of us and we don’t often think of where it goes.

The water sector in the United Kingdom is under increasing demand to keep up with changes in our climate and population, and rapid adaption is required in order for it to meet the challenges from consumers and businesses across the country.

Within 20 years, the climate is expected to warm, rainfall is expected to decrease, and population in England alone is anticipated to rise by up to 10 million people. The vast majority of this population growth is expected to occur in regions of the country where water is already scarce and urban pollution is extensive.

As I write this, I have just completed the 184 miles of the Thames Path National Trail – walking the length of the river from its source in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier in East London. The Thames passes through quaint Oxfordshire villages, enters Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Surrey towns before entering the urban metropolis of London. Along its journey it faces challenges in the form of pollutants from farming chemicals, litter and sewer overflows. According to the Environment Agency’s (EA) river basin management plans, many of our rivers are facing unprecedented pollution for many years to come and action needs to be taken to relieve this problem now.

Last year, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published an important roadmap towards building resilience to these challenges to our water sector. One important topic which is often raised is the sustainability of our sewage and drainage systems. Increasing use of sewage systems in densely populated areas or high levels of rainfall in urban zones can overwhelm our wastewater systems and subsequent flooding can lead to pollution.

As much as it is an unglamorous topic, our drainage and sewage systems are vital in improving the environment we live in. Something as simple as an ecological approach to drainage can dramatically improve the areas in which we work and live. One fantastic initiative we see in action today is the use of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS).

In built-up and highly developed areas, pollution in the water supply is a challenging issue as pollutants come from a variety of sources. In urban environments it is often difficult even to know where pollution is coming from, but runoff activity and waste water entering the water courses where they should not is a common problem and these are issues that need to be countered.

SuDS are an innovative drainage system aiming to tackle this issue head on by mimicking the natural movement of water. Rather than passing through conventional pipes which flow quickly into our waterways and sewers, storing surface water at source and managing runoff caused by urbanisation, SuDS can greatly reduce pollutants in water supplies. For example, by reducing surface run-off to sewer systems, SuDS reduce the flow to water treatment works, reducing demand and applying equality in surface water drainage.

We are seeing great examples of SuDS in action across the country. In schools along the Pymmes Brook in North London, SuDS have been fitted by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, in partnership with Thames Water and the Environment Agency. The introduction of SuDS in these schools means increased green space, more wildlife and opportunities for children to learn about conservation and the importantance of our waterways. We are even seeing the introduction of these systems in the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park, adding an environmental element to the legacy of our Olympic Games.

Examples such as those along the Pymmes Brook just go to show that these systems do more than just enhance water quality across the country and that something as innovative and unassuming as a sustainable and green drainage system can also have a major impact on many important socioeconomic factors in our lives. Take, for example, the link between a clean and green environment and reduced crime levels, or even the new walking or cycling opportunities created which bring health and lifestyle benefits. SuDS can benefit areas by creating more attractive areas for people to live or for people to visit and there are even opportunities to introduce them into traffic calming measures along roads. There is evidence that SuDS can stimulate economic growth through the creation of green jobs and unlocking new land which developers would not previously touch.

The benefits have already been acknowledged by government. In 2015 SuDS became a key part of planning policy and later the 2017 Housing and Planning Act enshrined the responsibility of the DCLG Secretary to reviewing sustainable drainage systems in England. These drainage systems are a vital part of the water sectors’ long term plan to protect our sewage systems and reduce pollution in our water supplies.

However, we know that as a nation we cannot rely on just the Government to find solutions to the issues that we face. It is for this reason that we must look towards the private sector in the water industry to rid us of pollutants. In 2013, the Government laid a challenge to the water sector to tackle sewage overflows. Since then, the industry has invested hundreds of millions of pounds and continues to work in partnership to deliver important projects such as the Thames Tideway.

London’s Victorian sewer system is no longer fit for purpose and the Tideway project will deliver a 25 kilometre sewer tunnel to prevent an average 20 million tonnes of untreated sewage discharging into the River Thames each year. Not only will the Tideway Tunnel benefit the environment, ecology and appearance of the Thames but it will provide an economic boost by creating thousands of skilled jobs and hundreds of apprenticeships.

As the largest infrastructure project the UK water industry has ever undertaken, the Tideway Tunnel aims to create a legacy of sustainable jobs and a sustainable environment. In October 2016, I took to the Thames to see for myself the progress of the project. During my visit to some of the construction sites on the river, it was clear that the Thames Tideway Tunnel will not only help to address this important health and environmental issue, but it will also leave a hugely important legacy. It also includes some smaller projects such as working with the Port of London Authority to introduce the Cleaner Thames scheme, encouraging people to bin their litter appropriately.

I am proud to be part of a Conservative Government which is dedicated to ensuring our environment is in a better condition than that in which we inherited it. In her 1988 Conservative Party Conference speech, Margaret Thatcher said that, “…the core of Tory philosophy and the case for protecting the environment are the same” and this still rings true today.

As Conservatives, we should be preserving our environment for all generations to come, no matter where you live or who you are. Just as making decisions about sound public finances is for the sake of those who come after us, we must continue to take action over the environment for those same future generations so that we can leave a sustainable and green world that works for everyone.