Scotland's river and beach sewage discharges are getting worse, not better – Alex Cole-Hamilton

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It’s not often you find yourself credited alongside the former lead singer of The Undertones but that was the strange situation I found myself in recently.

Where once he was the iconic voice behind hits like Teenage Kicks and My Perfect Cousin, now Feargal Sharkey has become best known as an outspoken environmental campaigner, highlighting the scourge of sewage flowing into our rivers and onto our beaches. This is a subject that is dear to my heart. My Edinburgh Western constituency is lucky to have some beautiful beaches and as a surfer myself I know how off-putting it can be to hear that the water quality isn’t up to scratch.

It’s an issue that has already attracted significant scrutiny in England where Conservative MPs have faced increasing pressure from campaigners and my Liberal Democrat colleagues over their willingness to pollute rivers and waterways while making excuses for the private water companies that oversee the mess.

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Perhaps then, this is a case of privatisation gone wrong? Not the case at all. If anything, Scotland – with our nationalised Scottish Water reporting to ministers – might be even worse. Even Scottish Government civil servants admit we’re “way behind” England in dealing with the problem.

Some determined digging by my party exposed that in 2021 (with apologies to those who are eating while reading this article) sewage was discharged into Scotland’s waterways more than 10,000 times and that in almost half of those cases either no record of the volume discharged was provided or it was not required to be provided. One leak lasted for more than four months. In total more than 34 million cubic metres were discharged, the equivalent of 13,600 Olympic pools.

We took the information to an interested journalist; he contacted Feargal, and our story headed out into the world. A few days later, a fresh trove of data arrived showing the figures for 2022. Perhaps the terrible figures had been an aberration, I hoped.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. In 2022, the number of discharges rose to more than 14,000, pumping more than 18,000 Olympic swimming pools of sewage into our waterways. What has the government’s response been? When I raised this issue with ministers previously, they told me that these discharges were “vital” and poo-poohed any possibility of changing course.

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That just isn’t good enough. For a start, ministers don’t even know how bad the problem is. While 89 per cent of sewage outflows are monitored in England, here in Scotland it’s less than four per cent.

People should be able to enjoy Scotland's beaches and rivers without the risk of being covered in sewage (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)People should be able to enjoy Scotland's beaches and rivers without the risk of being covered in sewage (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
People should be able to enjoy Scotland's beaches and rivers without the risk of being covered in sewage (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

So, when my party warns that there have been 14,000 discharges, the true picture is probably much worse. For many of us, Scotland's natural beauty and abundant freshwater resources are a point of pride. We cannot afford to let these precious resources fall victim to sewage pollution.

I believe that we need to take bold action to protect and restore our waterways. The new Environment Secretary must put in place a fresh plan that will upgrade monitoring across Scottish waterways and speed up efforts to upgrade our Victorian sewage network.

Back in 1979, my unlikely co-conspirator Feargal Sharkey sang “Here Comes The Summer”. Let’s make it one where our beaches and rivers are safe and clean for everyone to enjoy.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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