Grahame Morris MP

I am really pleased to speak in a very important debate for me and my constituents. The east Durham coastline is a huge asset to the region and to the country. From Seaham to Blackhall, I represent the most stunning coastline in Great Britain. We have amazing beaches, with an abundance of sea glass, sand dunes and limestone caves. Our seas are home to a formidable group of open water swimmers, braving the North sea at all times of the year. Our marina at Seaham provides access to various water sports, including canoeing, paddleboarding and windsurfing. Crimdon Dene visitor hub and café is encouraging more people to visit and enjoy our east Durham coastline.

On the sea front and the clifftops of east Durham, there is also an array of art, iconic locations and national heritage. Seaham has a newly decommissioned field gun, a further attraction, and is home to Tommy, a Ray Lonsdale world war one sculpture, an artwork that was voted the Sky Arts No. 1 public artwork and attracts a large number of people to our coastline. From Easington, the site of the former colliery, the views stretch from County Durham to North Yorkshire.

A nature reserve sits at the centre of the once thriving industrial heart of the community, and it is also the site of a memorial garden that honours the 83 miners and rescuers who lost their lives in the terrible disaster at Easington colliery in 1951. Blackhall is another site of special scientific interest. The wildflowers and grass of the clifftops offer peaceful views, with easy access to Blackhall’s beach caves. The coastline is also home to a unique music and film heritage. My constituency was the backdrop to the iconic “Who’s Next” album cover and the location for a number of films, including “Get Carter”, “Billy Elliot” and, most recently, “The Old Oak”.

That is why I am passionate about protecting our precious coastline. Industrial spoil from coal mining once blighted it and the beaches were blackened with coal dust and abandoned colliery infrastructure, but we reclaimed the coastline for nature. The “Turning The Tide” project removed industrial pollution from the east Durham coastline, and the improvement has made the environment more enjoyable for everyone.

Coal spoil was once a visible scar on the environment, but water pollution represents a more insidious and more discreet risk to our health, welfare and environment. I was interested by the Minister’s comments about personal injury, because water pollution hit the headlines recently when we had the ironman world triathlon championship series at Sunderland. There are three elements to the event, cycling, running and swimming, and after the swimming element, 88 of the athletes fell ill from swimming in waters contaminated with E. coli. I do not know what redress there was for personal injury, but we know the source of the problem.

Northumbrian Water, once a publicly owned authority but now under Chinese ownership, pollutes our seas whenever it rains. I looked yesterday at the Safer Seas & Rivers Service app, which I recommend to all hon. Members; we have had some terrible weather in the north-east, and as the snow thawed Northumbrian Water was polluting our seas at three sewage overflows in my constituency. That is just one of 164 incidents of Northumbrian Water dumping raw sewage in my constituency.

Neil Coyle MP

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about degradation. The Minister seemed to suggest that her Government were revered for their work on this issue. Do his constituents share my constituents’ view that, on the contrary, this is a Government of the effluent for the effluent?

Grahame Morris MP

What an excellent intervention, if I may say so. The suggestion that things are getting better is not the experience of my constituents—and as for the Minister’s commitment to addressing the issues, my feeling is that she is simply going through the motions.

We need a solution. I am an old-school socialist. Clean water, rivers and seas are very important, and private water companies have failed in their duty of care. Those companies enjoy a privileged position: no competition, a weak regulator and a compliant Government. I want to end those private monopolies—we should control and run water in the national interest—but I am a realist: the Tories and my own party do not have the appetite for nationalisation, so I will propose an alternative.

Private water companies have extracted huge dividends since privatisation, which they have secured through higher bills and a failure to invest, and by ramping up debt. In December 2022, The Guardian reported that water companies have paid £69.5 billion in dividends. Over the same period, they have racked up £54 billion in debts. Companies promise to invest in infrastructure, but only by passing on higher costs to consumers. Why do we accept water companies ripping us off, polluting our waters and telling us to pay to clean up their mess? The Government must take control of the situation.

I support the following: the Government must block all future dividend payments until water companies meet set standards including clean water targets, debt targets, investment targets and low consumer bills; we need a zero dumping policy—sewage overflows must be an exception, not the normal practice; we need a sustainable water industry, which means an end to the practice of borrowing in order to pay dividends; and new and modern infrastructure must be prioritised before dividends.

The promise of privatisation is always better service and lower costs, but we have seen worse service and higher bills every time. Private companies are driven by profits. The proposals that I have set out are a means of delivering the public interest. Dividends and profits should be awarded only when private companies deliver the promised services. If we cannot spend in the next Parliament, we need to regulate and reform. If privatised water is to remain, we must ensure that it works and benefits the people we all represent.

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