The latest MP's column comes from Imran Hussain, Labour MP for Bradford East 

Our rivers and waterways are one of the most precious resources that we have, and in the Bradford district, it is no exception, with the River Aire coursing through from near Keighley, down into Shipley, and skirting around the edge of my constituency in Bradford East at Apperley Bridge before heading on to Leeds.

The Aire’s not only a great scenic backdrop and source of recreation, but it is, even more importantly, a critical part of protecting our local ecosystems and encouraging biodiversity by carrying nutrients down from the Yorkshire Dales into the land across West and East Yorkshire.

Yet in recent years, it has become increasingly polluted as water companies discharge sewage into our rivers, as well as the streams and becks that flow into them, to relieve pressure on their antiquated systems and infrastructure.

Whilst this is not a problem isolated solely to Bradford, with sewage discharged into our rivers, seas and waterways across the country over 800 times a day last year alone, Bradford’s coverage of a sizeable portion of the River Aire means that we see a larger number of incidents than most.

With one outlet near Riddlesden responsible for 96 spillages taking place over more than 1,000 hours, another near Bingley responsible for a further 69 spillages over 800 hours, and an outlet at Apperley Bridge responsible for 96 spillages over almost 600 hours, Bradford ranks ninth in the top ten areas seeing the greatest number of discharge incidents, with more than 5,000 recorded in 2022.

However, whilst this is of course deeply alarming, what is just as concerning is that sewage is not only being discharged by Yorkshire Water into the River Aire from outlets along the river, but is also being discharged into the smaller streams and becks that feed into it.

Indeed, last year, sewage was discharged almost 350 times into Fagley Beck, Bolton Beck, Carr Beck, Haigh Beck and East Brook, all of which run through or near residential areas in my Bradford East constituency.

This poses a huge health risk to humans with the Environmental Audit Committee publishing a report last year that described a “chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, plastic and persistent chemicals” to be polluting rivers.

Other environmental groups have also warned that contaminated water is promoting the runaway growth of harmful viruses and bacteria that can seep into the food chain, with the potential creation of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria a particular danger.

Discharging sewage into rivers and other watercourses also of course poses a significant threat to the environment, with contaminated water damaging our ecosystems and dramatically altering biodiversity as the pollutants make the water and surrounding land inhospitable for so many species of plants, animals and insects.

After years of failing to properly prepare, invest in and upgrade their systems and antiquated infrastructure in favour of making profits, the responsibility for the sheer scale of this extraordinarily high number of discharge incidents lies squarely with water companies like Yorkshire Water.

Whilst some work has admittedly been done to make improvements and some investments announced, the fact is that in many places it is too late, and even then, it is insufficient to cope with demand or the strains caused by failures in outdated sewage networks.

Against this backdrop, the new Chief Executive of Yorkshire Water has rightly turned down a bonus payment that could have seen her given up to £800,000 on top of her base salary, but we can’t ignore the fact that this base salary is already set a staggering £515,000 a year and that Yorkshire Water still saw fit to make dividend payments of more than £60 million to other companies owned by their parent company group.

Yet, even as the primary responsibility for the number of discharge incidents lies with the water companies for failing to invest in making the improvements to their infrastructure that are needed, this Government cannot escape the blame.

Over the last 13 years, ministers have repeatedly failed to hold reluctant water companies accountable at the same time as cutting back enforcement and monitoring to ensure water companies are prosecuted for whenever they break the law by illegally discharging sewage into our rivers.

With even more sewage expected to flow into the water across Bradford, it is clear that we desperately need action, and that with heavy rains expected over the coming months which will lead to further storm and sewage overflows, we need it soon.

Not only do the Government therefore need to back the plans that I support which will give the water company regulator, Ofwat, the power to ban bonus payments for executives of those companies discharging sewage, will hold water bosses criminally liable for extreme and persistent lawbreaking, and will give regulators and enforcement bodies the teeth they need to uphold the rules, but they need to revisit the whole way that the water industry is set up too.

With raw sewage washing up on our beaches and flowing through our rivers, there is no more visible representation of the failure of water privatisation more than 30 years ago, and given the monopoly and the stranglehold that these private water companies have on our water industry, the only option to deliver cleaner water and better value is for us to bring these failed water companies back into public control and ownership for the public good where they belong.

Comment from Yorkshire Water

A Yorkshire Water spokesperson said: “During periods of heavy rainfall, storm overflows act as a relief valve to prevent wastewater backing up in the network and causing sewage escapes in people’s homes, businesses and gardens.

"These are permitted by the Environment Agency.

“However, we know there is more to do to reduce overflows into Yorkshire’s rivers.

"Tackling storm overflows is a priority for us and that’s why we’re investing £180million over the next couple of years to reduce discharges in the short-term.

"Longer-term, we’ve just submitted plans, which are subject to Ofwat approval, that includes £4.3bn dedicated to creating a healthy, natural environment, including £1.4bn to reduce the use of storm overflows and to protect the environment."