Sewage discharged into sea is unacceptable

It appears that yet again sewage has overflowed into the sea in West Dorset. According to Surfers Against Sewage, who monitor our beaches for these discharges, sewage appeared in the sea water at Eype, Charmouth and Seatown following the recent stormy weather. Ironically, a few days later, in their magazine that appeared through my letter box, Wessex Water’s Sewage Planning Manager claimed that they are “proud of our sustained industry-leading performance for customers, our communities and the environment”.

Now I have no problem with the service Wessex Water supply to their customers. Far from it. We recently had need to call them out for a blocked drain we share with our neighbours. The service they supplied was excellent. However, I really struggle to find the sewage discharges acceptable. Wessex Water justify these discharges as the necessary release of storm water to prevent our homes being flooded. This may well be the case, but is this the only response to large amounts of storm water? As our climate changes in response to increased amounts of carbon in the atmosphere such storms will only get more frequent and more severe. Does this mean that we will have to just accept the damage done to both sea life and human health by progressively increased numbers of discharges?

From my perspective, the main issue here is the delivery of essential public services by ‘for profit’ private companies. Starting during the Thatcher era there has been a growing economic orthodoxy that the dominant motivating factor behind all services should be the pursuit of economic growth, and that problems faced by our public services are best tackled by ‘market forces’. Under this economic model factors such as the discharge of sewage are classed as ‘externalities’, and are ignored by the company’s economic planning. Wessex Water is owned by the Malaysian YTL Corporation and turned in a profit of £552.3 million in 2020.

One solution, of course, would be to make water companies incur a cost for discharging sewage – to tax them for any pollution they cause. What I would like see, though, is a move to a completely different economic model, one that measures success by the degree to which the essential things we need in order to live (like warm, safe homes with a secure water and power supply) are delivered. Money and wealth are simply means to achieving these ends. Rather than set our economic focus on the means, as essential as they are, why not focus instead on the ends? Some people term such an economic model a ‘wellbeing economy’.

Our democratic deficit

I can’t help feeling that our democracy, a democracy that many people have fought for over the years, is gradually becoming unfit for purpose – certainly unfit for the functioning of a modern 21st century state. How many voters, for example, feel disconnected from politics, particularly from what’s happening in Westminster? How many of us feel that national politics is a drama being acted out in the national press, a drama that directly affects our lives but one that we have little or no say in? Are such feelings the symptoms of a healthy democracy? Rishi Sunak has recently been appointed our third Prime Minister of the year. The previous one was selected by just 0.3% of the UK electorate (the members of the Conservative Party) whilst Sunak was selected by an even smaller number (Conservative MPs). Surely we deserve more of a say in our national leader than this.

Now I know that in theory at least, UK voters do not directly elect their Prime Minister – that at a General Election we vote to elect an MP, not the PM. But we all know that in practice this is not the case. You only have to listen to ordinary people being interviewed during an election to know that they are voting for their choice of Prime Minister. The 2019 General Election was as much about the election of Boris Johnson and the rejection of Jeremy Corbyn as it was the election of our local MP. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge this and devise a new way of electing our representatives.

From my perspective the obvious solution is to become a Republic, with a directly elected head of state. This would both get rid of the Monarchy (a residual symbol of inherited power and class privilege) and allow voters to directly select who they wanted as national leader. We could still retain the role of PM of course, but this person would be no more than the leader of the largest party or governing coalition in the House of Commons. Though whilst I’m on the subject perhaps we should change the name of the assembly of MPs. ‘Commons’ is also reflective of the class system, whilst the ‘upper chamber’, the House of Lords, needs to be thrown into the political recycling bin and become elected in some manner.

However, the problems with our democracy are not confined the election of a Prime Minister. In my constituency, West Dorset, at the last General Election our MP was elected with the support of 55% of the electorate. In the scale of things a large majority – but what about the other 45%? Who represents them in Parliament? No matter how hard he tries it is impossible for our MP, Chris Loder, to represent the views and interests of all his constituents. To do so would require him to simultaneously hold and argue opposing viewpoints. I can quite honestly state that I do not feel that my views are being represented in Westminster by my MP. To give a concrete (though quite trivial) example, during a recent debate in the Commons on BBC local radio, Chris Loder said: “My constituents are clear that their priorities when they pay their licence fee are local programmes and local news.” Really? I’m in no doubt that some of his constituents hold this view – but all of them?

Perhaps, then, it is time to rethink how democracy works in this country. To this end it was reassuring to read that the Labour Party overwhelming endorsed proportional representation at their recent annual conference. Adopting a form of PR would not, on its own, resolve all the issues of our democratic deficit – but it would be a great start. Unfortunately, up to now, the Parliamentary Labour Party has been firmly against, and I suspect that all the time Keir Starmer believes that they have a chance of an overall majority at the next election they will remain so. However, if we want people to become active participants in democracy their position needs to change. We need to find a way of ensuring that as many perspectives as possible are not only represented in Parliament, but are involved in the decision and policy making process.