SOMERSET councillors have called on the government to take action to stop “poo islands” forming in the county’s rivers, writes Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter.
A damning report by the Environment Agency (EA) in September 2020 found that all of Somerset’s rivers were “polluted beyond legal limits”, as a result of both chemical pollution and sewage being discharged into the watercourses.
Somerset West and Taunton Council has called for the EA’s funding to be restored so that it can better monitor pollution levels and work with Ofwat to bring offenders to a successful prosecution.
Councillors will also continue to push for a solution to the phosphates crisis, which is delaying numerous housing developments across the county.
Sigurd Reimers, who took part in Extinction Rebellion protests in Taunton in late-2020, addressed a meeting of the full council on Tuesday evening (March 29) before the motion was formally debated.
He said: “In April 2021 the head of the Environment Agency drew attention to the fact that over the past decade, there had been cuts of more than 60 per cent to its total budget.
“The EA has responsibility for inspecting and overseeing the quality of the water in our rivers – in short, for protecting us all.
“I would emphasise the importance of restoring adequate funding to ensure that the EA can carry out its duties effectively.”
Since 2019, only 14 per cent of England’s rivers were rated as being of ‘good’ quality by the EA – and only 3.6 per cent of pollution complaints made to the agency in 2020 resulted in penalties for the individuals or companies responsible.
The motion was put forward by Councillor Dixie Darch, portfolio holder for climate change, who said water companies needed to act to prevent sewage from further polluting Britain’s rivers.
She said: “While improvements have been made in reducing chemical pollutants from industrial effluent, the increase in sewage discharges and chemical pollution from intensive agriculture and livestock farming mean that we’ve gone backwards rather than forwards in our bid to clean up our rivers.
“Here in our district, the high levels of phosphates in our protected areas on the Somerset Levels are a real and pressing challenge for us as a council – a direct result of the failure to manage the causes of water pollution.”
Ms Darch represents the ward of Norton Fitzwarren and Staplegrove to the north-west of Taunton – an area which has been allocated for substantial housing growth in the coming years.
The Staplegrove urban extension, which will eventually deliver more than 1,600 new homes, has been repeatedly delayed as a result of the phosphates issue – with a decision also pending on plans for 400 new homes to the south of the B3227 Wiveliscombe Road.
To tackle the problem, Ms Darch called on the council to demand the following actions from central government:
- Restore the EA’s budgets to pre-2010 levels to “deliver the necessary oversight”
- Increase inspection of farms and water companies, and ensuring regular prosecution of offenders by the Environmental Audit Committee and Ofwat
- Provide funding for local authorities for schemes designed to prevent road pollutants from entering water courses
Councillor John Hunt – whose Comeytrowe and Bishop’s Hull ward contains a sizeable section of the River Tone, as well as the major Orchard Grove development site – also spoke in support.
He said: “I had a local resident contact me who has just recently taken up wild swimming in the River Tone here. She actually sent me some photos of huge poo islands – if I may say that word in council.
“She is swimming along and there are these huge mounds of sewage in the middle of our river. The photos were taken down at Longrun Meadow.”
Council leader Federica Smith-Roberts added: “The government can and should be doing more – just like the water companies can and should be doing more, because it affects all of us.
“We know what it’s been like in trying to take action when it comes to phosphates, and I do hope we get a better response to this than we have had with the phosphates debate.”
The motion was approved by the council by a unanimous vote. Ms Smith-Roberts will now write to environment secretary George Eustice MP, calling on him to meet the council’s demands and to provide evidence of any improvements achieved within the last 18 months.
Letters will also be sent to local MPs Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) and Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane), along with the chief executive of Wessex Water, the regional director of the National Farmers’ Union, River Action and the Rivers Trust.