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Healthy rivers are an influential voting issue for almost half of British Public

© Matt Crossick/PA Media

The results of a recent national consumer survey, commissioned by River Action, show a surge of public concern over the dire state of Britain’s rivers and waterways. 

Findings reveal that 94% of the British public support the drive for healthy rivers by 2030, and almost half saying that their voting decision will be influenced if healthy rivers are a top priority in a political party’s manifesto.

Whether it is action against the threats of agricultural, sewage or chemical pollution, the survey’s results demonstrate that restoring Britain’s rivers back to health is gearing up to be a major voting issue in the run-up to next week’s local elections and the next general election likely to be next year. 

Public concern over water quality has risen dramatically in recent years. As more data on sewage discharges has become available, awareness has grown on the severity of the crisis. The UK Government is now facing significant public concern over the toxic state of Britain’s waterways with the results of the survey showing that only 6% of the public are satisfied that the Government has done a good job of enforcing the law to protect rivers. 

In response to increasing public concern, River Action has published its ‘Charter for Rivers’, which calls for all political parties to commit to restore our rivers to health for people and nature by 2030. 

The Charter sets out ten key actions to achieve this target focused on the range of pollutants choking our rivers including stopping agricultural pollution reaching rivers and stopping chemical pollution at source. It sets out a need for the Government to ensure water companies invest urgently in sewage infrastructure, a call backed by 74% of the public. In the last three years, raw sewage was discharged into our waterways over one million times from a water industry that has suffered from chronic under-investment over the last two and a half decades

Following the 70% cut to environmental protection budgets in the last decade alone, the Charter calls for the Government and all political parties to commit to ensuring that environmental regulators are sufficiently funded and resourced to 

monitor river quality, regularly inspect likely polluters and actively enforce regulations against polluting industries. The survey results show that two thirds of the British public now support greater funding for environmental regulators.

Supported by almost 50 environmental organisations and campaigners, including Deborah Meaden, Feargal Sharkey, Iolo Williams, National Trust, The Rivers Trust, Soil Association, Nature Friendly Farming Network and Wildlife & Countryside Link, the Charter sets out clear actions that any UK Government would need to address in order to rescue Britain’s rivers. 

James Wallace, CEO at River Action says: “The public’s eyes have been opened to the catastrophic pollution of our waterways permitted by the Government’s austerity-driven defunding of environmental protection. This new data demonstrates the depth of feeling through communities across the nation. People are worried about water security and risks to their health and livelihoods. They want to see binding well-overdue commitments to uphold the law and invest in our shared future. River Action’s Charter sends a clear message to all politicians and parties that upcoming elections could be won and lost over this national scandal. Our economy and society cannot function without clean and abundant water and healthy ecosystems.” 

Richard Benwell CEO at Wildlife & Countryside Link says: “Toxic chemicals, agricultural run-off, over-use, and habitat destruction all make UK rivers inhospitable for wildlife and water users, even before you add the outrage of water company pollution. To halt the decline of nature by 2030, none of these can continue. The Charter is a message to decision-makers that the future of our freshwaters means change on every front. Sewage pollution is just the tip of the fatberg.” 

Helen Browning at The Soil Association says: “There’s clearly public appetite for action to improve the health of our rivers and waterways. River Action’s Charter outlines the headline areas where this action should be targeted. In agriculture, efforts to enforce environmental regulations should be married with greater support for farmers to adopt nature-friendly approaches. Investment in better slurry management could reap immediate rewards, as could an overall reduction in agrochemical use. In the longer run, a societal shift towards less and better meat, away from geographically concentrated intensive livestock production, could take pressure off the land and provide our rivers with a chance to recover.”

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