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Alex B Cann column: Joe Lycett vs Sewage

On Tuesday night, Birmingham comedian Joe Lycett tackled the thorny issue of sewage spills into our rivers and seas.

When you think of the word 'spill', you might imagine knocking over a glass of water, but it somewhat underplays the scale of this huge problem. Our Victorian-built sewage system simply isn't designed to cope with the amount of waste being poured into it, and this programme set out to look at why this is happening.

It seems to me that not everything should be run for profit, and access to clean water is the mark of any civilised country, both in terms of drinking it and swimming in it. Billions of litres of raw untreated sewage are flowing untreated into our rivers and seas, and groups like Surfers Against Sewage are forced to regularly put out warnings about stretches of our coastline that are a health hazard.

In the show, we saw the basic process of treating our poo, including a rather amusing moment when Joe Lycett sported a Gillian McKeith T-shirt as he gave a sample at a laboratory. Whilst his trademark humour was sprinkled throughout the hour, he was quickly left shocked at the sheer scale of this issue.
A high profile stunt on the Royal Albert Dock involving a portable toilet and fake 'sewage' being pumped into the water garnered some headlines as hoped, and thankfully more people seem to be aware of the problem thanks to vociferous campaigners like Feargal Sharkey too.

Put simply, according to an insider who Joe spoke to, spills are routinely not reported, as bonuses are frequently linked to keeping reported spillage figures low. There was talk of a 'toxic culture' inside many water companies and certainly we were left feeling that things are often less than transparent.

As a result of the documentary's findings, the Church of England's pension fund has promised to review its £30 million investment into water firms, and there were the usual statements are the end from agencies promising tougher measures.

This has been going on for too long, and has to stop. Successive environment ministers have promised to get tough on water companies, but unfortunately words alone don't seem to be making much tangible difference. Swimming is great for mental health, but I can't imagine open water bathing in Britain is good for anyone's health, given the amount of toxic sludge floating in our waterways.

Fair play to Gary Lineker for taking part in the show, discussing his famous World Cup loose bowels incident and his general disgust at what's happening in our rivers. As a result of the show's findings, we're being urged to write to our local water company to keep the pressure on them to do more. This isn't even a party political issue, as successive governments of different colours have all allowed the situation to continue. We can only hope now that the comedian who once changed his name to Hugo Boss and appeared to shred a million pounds in protest at David Beckham's connections with Qatar during the 2022 World Cup can now make a similar impact on the country's stinking great sewage problem.

The insider on the show reported that some sewage works are 'held together with sticky tape and plasticine', and clearly more investment in our creaking infrastructure is urgently needed. One beach in Bognor Regis featured in the show certainly didn't look like the sort of place where I'd fancy a paddle!

If you pay your water bill in monthly instalments, one payment goes straight back into the pockets of hedge funds and shareholders. Imagine if this money could be invested into actually making things better. It might seem utopian, but I'd like to live in a country where the only warning flags on beaches involve high tides and not raw sewage contaminating the water.

You can head to www.turdcast.co.uk to read more about the campaign, and how to write to your water company. Joe is a brilliant campaigning journalist as well as a super funny bloke, and more power to his elbow for creating television like this. I hope it makes some waves! And not ones with poo and wet wipes floating in them.

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