Tiverton and Honiton hopeful Richard Foord said 12-year-old son left vomiting after taking dip in polluted River Culm
The dumping of sewage in Devon’s rivers has become a focal point of the crucial Tiverton and Honiton by-election after the Liberal Democrat candidate revealed his youngest son fell ill after going swimming.
Richard Foord, a former army major who lives on the banks of the River Culm outside Tiverton, told The Independent his 12-year-old son and one of his friends recently got sick after swimming in the waterway, where concerns have repeatedly been raised about pollution.
Mr Foord said his son vomited and was in bed for a day, while his friend was in bed for several more with a headache. Neither required medical attention and Mr Foord said his son, who he did not want to name, was now “fine”.
“But I was certainly worried at the time,” he said.
While it is not clear what exactly made Mr Foord’s son and his friend sick, he said it could well be explained by the high levels of sewage discharge recorded in local rivers.
Analysis of government data by the Liberal Democrats has found sewage was dumped into rivers and beach fronts across the southwest 42,484 times last year, or around 116 times a day. This included 1,938 sewage discharges for over 19,000 hours in rivers and beaches in the Tiverton and Honiton constituency, where recent polls have put Mr Foord neck and neck with Conservative candidate Helen Hurford ahead of Thursday’s vote.
“It’s really quite staggering just how much sewage is being released into rivers,” Mr Foord said, accusing the government of taking a “hands-off” approach. “South West Water has been allowed by the government to make these discharges now for a very long time.”
The River Culm was found to be the eighth-most polluted river due to sewage spills out of 58 rivers in England and Wales analysed by Windrush Against Sewage Pollution.
The Connecting the Culm project, which aims to boost the health of the river, said agricultural pollution in the river’s catchment area was also a major contributor to water quality issues.
In 2015, the journalist George Monibot reported that farm slurry was pouring into the Culm.
He said after an investigation the Environment Agency had decided to take no action because the “long-term ecological impacts on the environment were fortunately low”. The agency knew this, he said, because there was “no evidence of a fish kill”.
Less than three years later, however, a significant fish die-off was reported on the River Culm and the Environment Agency has since been forced to restock fish on the river.
Defra said the environment agency was not able to establish the cause or source of the pollution involved in the Culm fish deaths in April 2019. It said the pollution incidents that occurred in 2015 and 2019 were not connected.
The state of Britain’s rivers has become a campaign issue for the Liberal Democrats in the largely rural constituency of Tiverton and Honiton, where Thursday’s by-election follows the resignation of former Tory MP Neil Parish following an admission he twice watched porn in parliament.
The state of Britain’s rivers has become a campaign issue for the Liberal Democrats, not only in this part of Devon but across the country.
“This is just one example of where rural areas like this one have been taken for granted by the Conservative government,” said Mr Foord. “While the government can take for granted areas like this one it has no incentive to address these rural problems that we’re really struggling with in these parts.”
A Conservative Party source told The Independent the government “has been repeatedly clear that water companies must do better” on pollution.
The Liberal Democrat Lord Oates raised the analysis about sewage in rivers in the Tiverton and Honiton area in the House of Lords on Tuesday.
Lord Benyon, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, responded that it was a “good choice of geography”.
“People who live in that part of the world in places such as Tiverton and Honiton … are right to want a government that is going to clean this up and that has a plan to do it without raising their bills to unaffordable levels,” he added. “That government is this one.”
The state of England’s waterways has long alarmed environmentalists, politicians and members of the public with government data showing that every river in England is polluted.
In March, water companies admitted discharging raw sewage in England’s rivers, estuaries and seas around 1,000 times a day in 2021, according to government data.
While sewage firms are permitted to do this during times of heavy rainfall, the Environment Agency has said they have allowed far too many spills.
The government has been trying to clamp down on discharges and launched a consultation on its plan to do so.
The Liberal Democrats have said they would introduce a sewage tax that would tax the profits of water companies to invest in cleaning up our rivers and coastal areas.
In April, the Liberal Democrats proposed a new Sewage Discharge Bill in the House of Commons which would have named and shamed water companies that were found to have poisoned animals with sewage dumps, but the idea was blocked by the government.
The party has also called on the government to force water companies to install monitors before the summer holiday season.
Tiverton and Honiton is one of two by-elections on Thursday which could pile huge pressure on Boris Johnson.
If the Conservatives lose this seat and the one in Wakefield, it will be the first time a government has lost two by-elections on the same day in more than 30 years.
Double defeat in the Devon constituency and in West Yorkshire would almost certainly lead Tory rebels to renew calls for the PM to resign.