Roger Ratcliffe sniffs out a scandal

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It’s grimly appropriate that the two biggest headline grabbers before the Queen’s death were Liz Truss bobbing to the surface without trace as prime minister and the stink – quite literally – over water firms pumping untreated sewage into the sea at a time when our beaches are at their most crowded. Is there a better metaphor for what’s happening to us than the vile tide now washing round our shores? Misquoting Shakespeare, one Twitter wag described the UK as “this septic isle”.

But as autumn’s chill makes seaside swims and paddles less appealing there is a danger the scandal will disappear from headlines, supplanted by the next tale of Tory misrule. And let’s face it, plenty of these are in a holding pattern just waiting to land. Big tax cuts for the rich? Tick. Even fatter bonuses for bosses? Tick. Fracking licenses nodded through and sod the risks of earthquakes and climate change? Tick. Food banks barely able to cope with demand? Tick. Public finances a car crash rather than the government levying a windfall tax on the oil and gas extractors’ obscene excess profits? Tick. Amping up the rhetoric against the EU? Well, you get the picture.

But back to sewage. More specifically, let’s go to the beach at Morecambe. One of the youngest members of my family, four-year-old Oliver, was taken there by his parents in July. The weather was grey but, hey ho, they were at the seaside and Oliver got to paddle and roll about at the edge of the surf. There had been a heavy downpour earlier in the week, which is an important point because rain causes sewage tanks to overflow and discharge into the sea. So little Oliver’s innocent fun at Morecambe turned out to be a risk. It might well be the reason he ended up with sickness, a fever and a trip to hospital within 24 hours.

A month later the news website LancsLive carried a story headlined “As raw sewage row rumbles across Morecambe Bay some residents say they’ve been left holding their noses”. A reporter who visited the beach wrote that some people were “remembering to keep their mouth shut” while swimming. A visitor said the experience was “disturbingly poopy”. I’ll spare you the more graphic descriptions.

To compound this outrage the government and water companies deny there’s an issue, which is straight out of Putin’s playbook of deny, deny, deny. Frankly, I’m more inclined to believe the Bishop of St Albans, who told the House of Lords a few days before Oliver’s paddle at Morecambe that in 2020 alone the nine water companies made over 400,000 dumps of sewage into UK rivers and coastal waters while between them racking up £2.8 billion in profits. Since the companies were privatised in 1989 they have paid out £72 billion in shareholder dividends.

So is this fetid tide all the companies’ fault? Yes and no. In 2015 the Environment Agency, which is supposed to monitor and stop sewage discharges, was slimmed down as an “efficiency measure”. And guess who the environment secretary was that okayed this poopfest? Step forward our new prime minister, Liz Truss.

Her idol Margaret Thatcher became known as Milk Snatcher Thatcher after stopping free school milk while education secretary. I’ll leave you to come up with an appropriate nickname for Truss.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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