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Lib Dems become first party to back i’s manifesto to Save Britain’s Rivers

Today the Liberal Democrats become the first political party in Britain to sign up to i’s blueprint to save the nation’s rivers.

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 rescue UK rivers and seas.

The plan is simple but requires political willpower, rather than the current blame game. Every political party in the UK will be asked to support it. Taking these five steps will transform Britain’s rivers.

The objective is to finally force political action – and stop our rivers being used as open sewers, returning them to people and nature.

The Liberal Democrats have committed to the manifesto’s five key pledges to reverse the destruction of our precious waterways, including steps to improve river health, slash sewage spills, toughen regulators, fund farmers and create more clean bathing spots.

In an opinion article for i, the party’s leader Sir Ed Davey said “enough is enough” and vowed that the Liberal Democrats “will have the most ambitious manifesto of any political party on cleaning up our rivers and coastlines”.

Our five-point plan had already been backed by 21 prominent environmental groups and campaigners, including Chris Packham and Deborah Meaden.

#1. RIVER HEALTH: 77 per cent 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 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]

Davey said: “Britain’s rivers are under assault… As i’s campaign has so powerfully highlighted, the state of our waters is a national scandal. That is why we support this paper’s manifesto to Save Britain’s Rivers.”

He also claimed the Government’s “lack of care for the environment was most visible in their failure to tackle sewage spills”.

In addition to backing i’s five pledges, Davey said his party would “get tough on the polluting and profiteering water companies” and ban them from giving bonuses to bosses “until sewage spills end”.

The Liberal Democrats have also pledged to introduce new ‘Blue Flag’ rivers that will have protected status for swimmers and wildlife.

i is challenging all of the political parties to sign up to its manifesto ahead of the general election in July and has vowed to reveal which parties back the plan, which decline to, and why.

Since environmental issues are largely devolved, the policies in i’s manifesto focus primarily on the protection of England’s rivers, because this is the jurisdiction that the UK government has full control over.

However, i is challenging political parties in all four nations to sign up to the manifesto ahead of the general election, and for equivalent measures to be introduced by policymakers across the UK.

The manifesto policies are designed to minimise damage caused by sewage spills and farming and ensure our rivers are thriving for humans and wildlife alike.

It is expected to attract strong cross-party support, as well as the backing of more environmental groups and their millions of supporters.

Britain’s rivers have shot to the top of the political agenda in recent years as the public has become aware of the shocking level of sewage and other pollution flowing through our waterways.

The plan would guarantee a legacy for i’s Save Britain’s Rivers campaign, which was launched in 2023 in collaboration with our sister publication, New Scientist. For the past 16 months it has shone a light on the dire state of our waterways.

i’s editorial team decided to take action because of growing disgust and anger among readers in communities around the UK.

Any member of the public who feels strongly about the issue will be able to use this manifesto to help drive change.

The Liberal Democrats have put the environment at the centre of their offer to voters, with Davey launching the party’s campaign from a paddleboard on Lake Windermere.

Latest polls suggest the party is on course to secure a 10 per cent share of the vote and 43 seats in parliament. It won 11 seats at the 2019 general election.

The party is hoping its focus on the environment, and sewage in particular, will win votes in leafy ‘blue wall’ constituencies that it wants to seize from the Conservative party.

Labour is also trying to convince voters the party will solve the sewage crisis in government, and has vowed to put water companies in “special measures” if elected. However, the party is yet to release its full manifesto and provide further details of what this will entail.

In Government, the Tories have placed new targets on water companies to end sewage spills by 2050, but green groups have criticised the proposals saying they do not go far enough. The party is also yet to release its manifesto.

Only the Liberal Democrats will protect our rivers and coastlines 

Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey

On Monday Rishi Sunak visited a rowing club on the River Thames. You might have seen the pictures.

The Liberal Democrat boat that photo-bombed him wasn’t just there to get in the way of the Prime Minister’s carefully staged media moment. Our local campaigners were there to highlight the Conservatives’ appalling record on sewage being pumped into our rivers and onto our beaches. 

It is a scandal that more than 14 billion litres of sewage was spilled into the river by Thames Water last year.

As readers of i will be all too aware, the Thames is far from alone. The River Calder in Yorkshire, River Avon in the West Country and River Severn in Wales and the West Midlands all had sewage dumped into them for more than 30,000 hours each in 2023. Beaches around the country are often closed due to sewage spills by water companies. 

In total, sewage was dumped into England’s rivers for a shocking 4.5 million hours last year, with over half a million sewage spills – equivalent to 1,500 every single day of the year.

Meanwhile, astonishingly, water companies have rewarded their bosses with more than £50 million in bonuses since 2019.

Enough is enough.

Nowhere is the Conservatives’ lack of care for the environment more visible than in their failure to tackle sewage spills.

Britain’s rivers are under assault. Marine environments are currently in a state of crisis due to sewage and plastic pollution. Yet the Conservatives have stood by while swimmers have been made ill and wildlife harmed. 

At this general election, the Liberal Democrats will have the most ambitious manifesto of any political party on cleaning up our rivers and coastlines.

We will get tough on the polluting and profiteering water companies, by turning them into public benefit companies and banning them from giving bonuses to their bosses until sewage spills end.

We will get rid of the toothless and weak regulator Ofwat, replacing it with a tough new regulator with additional powers to prevent dumping.

We will introduce new ‘Blue Flag’ rivers, with special protected status for swimmers and wildlife, levying punitive fines on water companies if they continue to pump filthy sewage into them.

As i‘s campaign has so powerfully highlighted, the state of our waters is a national scandal. That is why we support this paper’s manifesto to Save Britain’s Rivers. 

The Liberal Democrats will ensure families are free to swim safely in the knowledge that our rivers and beaches are not polluted with sewage. 

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