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Labour’s £5m donor urges Starmer to back i manifesto to Save Britain’s Rivers

One of Labour’s biggest donors has urged Keir Starmer to endorse i’s manifesto to Save Britain’s Rivers as he warned the party needed a stronger message on fixing the crisis.

Green energy tycoon Dale Vince called on the party to back the “simple, strong” blueprint for rescuing Britain’s waterways and stop them from “being polluted for the sake of money”.

He urged Labour to clampdown on water firms if it wins power in the general election next month, saying the health of our rivers, lakes and seas are “one of the most important things”.

Amid growing public anger at the health hazards from sewage and other pollution – and the widespread destruction of wildlife – i has created a manifesto to reverse the damage to the UK’s waterways.

i has challenged all of the political parties to sign up to the five-point blueprint, which has been backed by over 20 leading environmental groups and prominent campaigners such as Chris Packham and Deborah Meaden.

DAle Vine, Founder of Ecotricity, Photographed in London.12/6/24. Photo Tom Pilston.
Labour donor and green energy tycoon Dale Vince (Photo: Tom Pilston)

It includes policies to improve river health, cut sewage spills, implement a tougher watchdog, create more clean bathing sites and minimise the impact of farming.

The Liberal Democrats and Green Party have pledged their support for i’s blueprint so far. The Conservative Party has not backed it in full, but included some of the policies in its manifesto, such as reforms to the regulatory process for water companies and increased funding for farmers.

#1. RIVER HEALTH: 77% of rivers in good health by 2027 

Current situation: England’s rivers were once havens of biodiversity, but the vast majority are now struggling to support healthy ecosystems of plants and wildlife. Just 14 per cent of rivers in England are currently in good ecological health and not a single river has achieved good chemical health. The current Government has set a legal target that 77 per cent will achieve good ecological status by 2027 – but without urgent action this will not happen. 

Target: Within its first six months in power, the next Government will publish a roadmap on how it is going to achieve this existing legal target, and its long-awaited chemical strategy. The plan must include increased funding for the Environment Agency so the watchdog can do its job – and enforce the law.  

#2. SEWAGE: Sewage spills will not damage high-priority areas – including bathing spots and nature sites – by 2030 

Current situation: Bathing waters and nature sites are being destroyed by sewage spills, but water companies will not be required to clean up all these spaces until 2045. 

Target: Untreated sewage will not cause damage to high-priority sites (which are bathing spots, protected nature sites, National Parks and chalk streams) by 2030. Water companies who fail to meet this target will be prosecuted. Nature-based solutions will be used to clean up sewage wherever possible. 

#3. WATCHDOG: Regulators will stop water companies destroying the environment in pursuit of profit

Current situation: Water companies have paid their investors healthy dividends while failing to invest enough in their infrastructure to prevent environmental harm. This is partly caused by a disjointed regulatory system that prioritises economic outcomes over the environment.  

Target: Within its first year in power, the next Government will publish a plan to reform regulation of water companies. This plan must be legislated on and executed within the first term of Parliament. This will include tougher powers to restrict dividends and bonuses for underperforming water companies, alongside greater resources to pursue prosecution. A “green duty” will be placed on Ofwat, which will force the regulator to place greater emphasis on the environment when making decisions over water companies’ business plans.  

#4. BATHING: Create 100 clean bathing spots in rivers by 2030

Current situation: People in the UK have discovered the joy of wild swimming. But there are only 15 official bathing spots in English rivers, and many are not safe. 

Target: 100 bathing spots in English rivers by the end of the next Parliament. The Environment Agency must start monitoring water quality throughout the year and take action to improve water quality at these sites. Bathing regulations will be altered so polluters can be prosecuted when bathing sites fail water quality tests.  

#5. FARMING: Farmers must be funded to improve water quality, and face enforcement action if they damage the environment

Current situation: Agriculture is the biggest source of pollution in many rivers, but many farmers warn they are struggling to make ends meet under post-Brexit farming subsidies. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency is failing to enforce farming water-quality regulations.   

Target: Within its first year in power, the next Government will strengthen its Environmental Land Management scheme so farmers are given more grants, support and advice to undertake activities that will improve water quality. The Environment Agency will commit to a year-on-year increase in the number of farms being inspected – and take enforcement action against those who commit breaches of the “farming rules for water”.

How you can take action to Save Britain’s Rivers

If you want to push the next Government to act to protect Britain’s rivers, you can support i’s manifesto by doing the following:

  • Write to your local MP election candidates, asking them if they will support i’s five-point plan and push for it to be incorporated into their party’s manifesto in time for next month’s election.
  • Write to your local water company, urging them to sign up to the pledges and to be part of the solution to Britain’s polluted rivers, not part of the problem.
  • Share i’s manifesto on social media and amongst your local community.
  • Get involved with the groups supporting i’s manifesto, who are already doing incredible work to conserve our precious waterways
  • If you have a story about your local river that you think should be featured in our campaign, contact [email protected]

Mr Vince, who has donated around £5m to the party since 2020, urged the party to include i’s five-point plan to fix the rivers crisis when Starmer unveils his election manifesto on Thursday.

“I don’t see why it shouldn’t, because it is a simple, strong manifesto that we need,” he said. “Post the election, I’m hoping that we’ll see Labour clamp down on the water companies.

“My personal favourite policy is don’t allow any more dividends until they fix the problem. Make them spend that money on fixing the problem. That’s what we should have done in the first place.”

When asked which political party had the strongest message on water pollution, Mr Dale said he has not “really seen a lot of strength from anybody”.

“I’d say probably the i news party has got the strongest message,” he joked.

Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary Steve Reed told i a Labour government would “put the water companies under special measures to force them to clean up their act”.

He added: “We will give the regulator tough new powers to make law-breaking water bosses face criminal charges and ban the payment of their multi-million pound bonuses until they clean up their toxic filth.”

Labour has also said it will introduce severe and automatic fines for water companies that discharge sewage illegally.

i has called on all parties to commit to reforming the regulatory process so Ofwat has tougher powers to restrict water boss bonuses and dividend payments.

While Labour’s policies align with this pledge, the party is yet to announce whether it will set tougher targets on sewage spills, increase the number of clean bathing spots in our rivers, and boost funding for farmers to tackle pollution, as called for by i’s manifesto. It is also yet to set out fully how it will meet a Government legal target for 77 per cent of rivers to be in good ecological health by 2027.

When Starmer ran for the Labour leadership, he pledged to bring public services, including water into “common ownership”, but has subsequently said a Labour government will not renationalise water companies.

Mr Dale said the state of Britain’s rivers is “one of the most important things”.

“It’s not just about the fact that we can’t swim and wildlife can’t thrive in them. Rivers are an important part of the ecology of our country and they’re being polluted just for the sake of money,” he said.

Mr Dale, who owns the green energy firm Ecotricity, has made large donations to a number of environmental groups, including Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, and has previously given money to the Green Party.

Last year he announced he was no longer funding Just Stop Oil, as he shifted his attention to helping Labour win the general election.

Despite his belief that the party needs a tougher message on tackling the sewage crisis, he said Labour would “be the greenest government we’ve ever had” if elected. He urged those with “green aspirations” to give the party the “benefit of the doubt” and vote for them.

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