Thérèse Coffey has admitted she cannot end the sewage scandal, in what critics are calling a “complete abdication of duty”.
Launching her department’s cleaner water plan at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes in the south of the capital, the environment secretary said upgrading the sewage network to stop spills could add hundreds of pounds each to people’s bills.
She said: “While London and the Thames may have space for its new supersewer, wider upgrades of the sewer network lead to destructive works on our streets and put hundreds of pounds on people’s bills. There’s no way we can stop pollution overnight. If there were, I would do it without hesitation.”
Coffey took a veiled swipe at the Labour party, which has vowed to “end the Tory sewage scandal”, by saying that those who say they could end the problem are “either detached from reality or being definitively dishonest with the public”.
She also claimed “reaching the gold standard for ecological status would mean taking us back to the natural state of our rivers from the year 1840”, which was “not practical or desirable”. As an illustration of the difficulties, she pointed out that “no one is contemplating ripping up half of Sheffield to let the River Don run free, but without that it would never be scored as gold standard”.
Her plan has been criticised for including measures such as a ban on plastic in wet wipes that were announced years ago. Meanwhile, critics say they cannot see the tough new actions needed to tackle the crisis. The environment secretary recently faced calls by campaigners and political parties to resign for “not caring” about the sewage scandal, and the Conservative party is concerned that anger over local pollution issues may cost seats in the upcoming local elections. Coffey was recently named the least popular cabinet minister – by some margin – among Tory voters in a Conservative Home poll.
This week it was revealed that even England’s most celebrated beaches are being marred by sewage, with Blue Flag areas in Sussex and Devon having experienced 8,500 hours of dumping last year.
The strategy also focuses on getting people to use less water, encouraging the rollout of smart meters and a campaign for a change in lifestyle choices.
When asked by journalists how she personally reduced her own water usage, Coffey said she had a meter that once detected a leak. The water minister, Rebecca Pow, said she had just installed her third water butt.
The Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesperson, Tim Farron, said: “It’s disgraceful that Thérèse Coffey is throwing in the towel in the fight to protect our rivers from filthy sewage dumping. This is a complete abdication of duty.
“The Conservatives are responsible for this sewage crisis after allowing water companies to dump sewage in our rivers for years. They need to take responsibility for fixing it. The public shouldn’t be forced to pay the price with our rivers and coasts ruined for generations to come.”
Campaigners said her plans did not go far enough to protect rivers and wildlife.
Matt Browne, the head of policy and advocacy at Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “What we are still waiting to see is a comprehensive plan built around delivering on a long-term target for the health of our waters and an ambitious UK chemicals strategy to weave these individual threads into a world-leading tapestry of action to restore our rivers and seas. With so much of our wildlife and waters struggling under the weight of pollution, development and overuse, only a well-focused, well-resourced and far-reaching plan will turn the tide for nature.”