Environment Bill

Lord Berkeley Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

75: After Clause 88, insert the following new Clause—

“Isles of Scilly: disapplication of water quality legislation

(1) Article 3 of the Isles of Scilly (Application of Water Legislation) Order 2020 (S.I. 2020/214) has effect as if—(a) at the end of paragraph (1) there were inserted “and to paragraph (3)”, and(b) after paragraph (2) there were inserted—“(3) Part 3 of the Water Resources Act 1991 does not apply to the following islands—(a) Bryher;(b) St Martins;(c) St Agnes.”(2) Accordingly, no charges may be levied under the Environment Agency (Environmental Permitting) (England) Charging Scheme in relation to the application of the Order on those islands.(3) Subsections (1) and (2) are repealed if a nominated water or sewerage undertaker has demonstrated to the Water Services Regulation Authority and the Environment Agency that it has invested in infrastructure so as to comply with the requirements of the Order.”Member’s explanatory statement

The water and sewerage regulations came into force on the Isles of Scilly in March 2020 but, on some islands, there is a statutory undertaker appointed for water supply but none for sewerage and no ability to comply with the sewerage regulations. This amendment would disapply the related Environment Agency charges until the necessary infrastructure is built and a statutory undertaker appointed.

Lord Berkeley Portrait Lord Berkeley (Lab)
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My Lords, Amendment 75 is part of the relevant activities in this section but it is very specific to the Isles of Scilly, which, as the Minister will know, is where I live. In fact I was late this morning because the transport there did not work, but there we are.

The amendment relates to the drainage and water supply of the island. As noble Lords will know, there is one big island, St Mary’s, and four inhabited islands. A couple of years ago, after the Isles of Scilly (Application of Water Legislation) Order came into force, the water supply was taken over by South West Water as the nominated undertaker, and that has all been working fine. The sewage on most of Saint Mary’s and Tresco has also been taken over by South West Water, but on the other three islands it has not.

I am raising this issue today because this is very opportune. I heard about this only a couple of weeks ago, when the farmer next door to where I live, in Bryher, who in his spare time empties septic tanks and soakaways if they overflow, received a letter from the Environment Agency saying that, from 1 October, some very high charges would be imposed, plus fines, if he did not comply with the Water Resources Act 1991 as it is now applied to Scilly. That came into effect about 18 months ago, but, frankly, no one seems to have done much about it. Worse still, what do you do about it? You cannot suddenly put in a main drainage system or deal with septic tanks just like that, as we all know. At present, the system seems to work all right in the off-islands; if your tank needs emptying, the farmer empties it and deals with it in a reasonably environmentally friendly way. It does not get into the water supply or the sea, but it gets dumped somewhere nobody knows. But of course this is not what the Water Resources Act wants and, reasonably, needs.

The real problem is that the Environment Agency says that everything should be screened, and anything caught in the screen should then get incinerated. That is fine, but the first job is to build an incinerator. On a small island, that is not particularly easy, even if you have the money—and I do not yet know where the money is going to come from. St. Mary’s is going to have one, and maybe that will mean transporting 10 tonnes of solids every week on the inter-island ferry —in watertight containers, presumably—to be incinerated there. Again, that is a perfectly good solution, except they have not started building an incinerator yet, so they cannot do that anyway.

With the amendment, I have tried to produce a way to persuade the Minister that these charges and potential fines should not be applied to those who are not connected to a statutory undertaker for sewage until or unless something is built that enables their sewage to be treated in a proper way. Whether much happened between March 2020 and recently, I do not know, but I have talked to the Environment Agency locally, and I am also grateful for the help that officials at Defra gave me last week when we had some very useful conversations. What I think will come out of this, if the Minister is prepared to give me some assurances, is that these new charges and/or fines will not come into effect until it is possible and, shall we say, cost-effective to implement and operate them. I hope the Minister can give me assurances such as that tonight.

In the last two or three weeks, there have been several meetings between the Duchy, the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Environment Agency and South West Water, and I hope that that indicates some progress. I think we all want progress, including the Ministers and the Environment Agency, and it occurs to me that it might help that progress if it were possible for a Minister to go there and, shall we say, encourage the working group to get on and do it. First of all, you have to design a sewage system, but some islands are solid granite and, fairly obviously, it is not that easy to build septic tanks in granite. There are an awful lot of things going on and it would be easy for this issue to fall to the bottom of the list.

So, if the Minister can give me assurances in the way I have suggested, I certainly will not divide the House. If the Minister can say nothing, well, we will see—but I hope that will not happen, because I have had some really good discussions with officials. This is not anything like as important as everything else we have been discussing in the Environment Bill, but it is an opportunity for me to bring this to your Lordships’ attention and, hopefully, not only get the Minister to give me the assurance I want but encourage islanders to get on and do this and make sure that their water quality and sewage quality are compliant with the Water Resources Act, as the rest of the country should be. I beg to move.

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Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I too thank noble Lords for this debate on Amendment 75 from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. I was going to start with some background, but the noble Lord provided the background very well. I admit that, if this only arrived on his desk two weeks ago, it arrived on mine probably even more recently than that.

As he said, water, wastewater and corresponding environmental management legislation were applied to the Isles of Scilly for the first time in April 2020. This was the culmination of a project lasting more than 10 years. It addresses water-quality risks to public health, risks to the environment from over-abstraction of water resources, sewage treatment and resulting pollution on the Isles of Scilly. The Environment Agency is now working with the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Duchy of Cornwall, Tresco Estates, residents, and other local partners to ensure that environmental legislation is complied with, and practices modernised over time. I urge all parties to continue their valuable work toward this endeavour.

I know that everyone involved shares the aim of helping isles such as Bryher to avoid long-term environmental damage and risk to human health. It is therefore crucial that the legislation that so many people worked so hard to apply to the Isles stays in effect. The Environment Agency recently consulted on a charges scheme regarding environmental permits to help support the work. Currently a risk-based transition plan for the management of septic tank waste and sludges on the Isles is being developed as a priority, ensuring that the fragile environment and groundwater resources are as well supported as possible into the future.

Very briefly, in response to comments from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I can tell him that septic tank wastes are currently disposed of outside the above permits under other legislation, but we will need an evolution and transition to a better system, hopefully aligned with the development of water company assets in the future. Again, we are working very closely with partners on the Isles of Scilly to achieve that future.

The Government recognise that this will involve change for residents, and the Environment Agency is managing that change sensitively and through partnership. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for taking the time to discuss this issue with my officials and for bringing this to my attention, and I reassure him that we will continue to monitor progress on this issue. I will ensure that my colleague Rebecca Pow, in whose portfolio this sits, is kept fully abreast of the issues. I beg that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.

Lord Berkeley Portrait Lord Berkeley (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister for that response, to my noble friend, and to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his intervention. Perhaps I might press the Minister just a little bit further and ask him to make it quite clear that this charge sheet that came in a couple of weeks ago, and will start to come into effect on 1 October, will not be applied until the relevant work has been done. My next door neighbour, if he does not like it, will feel threatened. There is a good solution: stop emptying septic tanks. That is not something that any of us want to see. So a little bit of comfort from the Minister on the charges would be very helpful, before I withdraw my amendment.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I assure the noble Lord that I absolutely commit to continuing to work with the residents to implement the changes in as sensitive and sensible a way as possible, but I do not think I am able to commit to specifics or comment on specific cases at this time. I hope that is enough for the noble Lord.

Lord Berkeley Portrait Lord Berkeley (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister, and on that basis I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 75 withdrawn.