Public anger over sewage boosts Lib Dems’ chances in key Tory battlegrounds

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Public anger over sewage is set to influence voters in many seats that the Liberal Democrats are seeking to win from the Conservatives — including chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Surrey constituency.

Sensing an electoral opportunity, the Lib Dems have seized on growing fury over the continued contamination of national coastlines, placing the issue at the heart of their campaign to win over disaffected Tory voters.

It is “an incredibly potent example of how the government has failed, how the people at the wheel are crashing the car”, said Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.

While sewage alone will not determine voting behaviour, Ford said the issue was a fascinating electoral topic that was likely to significantly bolster opposition parties’ prospects in parts of the UK, predominantly in Lib Dem target seats.

In the picturesque seat of Godalming and Ash in Surrey — where Hunt is running and has admitted the fight against the Lib Dems is on a “knife’s edge” — locals have been bombarded with leaflets from candidates boasting of their efforts to clean up local rivers.

The Conservatives’ material is designed in shades of green, prompting comparisons to Green party literature, and asserts the chancellor is “campaigning to stop sewage discharges in our rivers”.

Paul Follows, the local Liberal Democrat candidate, acknowledged it was going to be a “fight” to win the seat at the general election on July 4, while noting it was a stunning turn of events that the formerly Tory stronghold was even in play.

Hunt told the Financial Times that his constituents “have had truly lousy service from Thames Water”. But he said he had secured a commitment from the company to invest more than £420mn into cleaning up the local River Wey by 2026, so “we should begin to see an improvement”.

The number of raw sewage discharges into rivers and the sea hit an all-time record last year, according to data from the Environment Agency, following years of waste dumping that political leaders have dubbed a “scandal”.

Ipsos polling data for the FT showed that across the UK the top issues for voters are healthcare, the cost of living, migration and housing. Environmental protection ranked lower, with 26 per cent of people saying it would determine their voting choice.

But environmental concerns are more likely to be a priority among highly educated, older voters living in rural areas.

Some 75 per cent of those aged between 65 and 75 strongly supported introducing policies to drastically reduce the amount of raw sewage dumping, including setting legally binding targets, according to Ipsos. This compared with 36 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds.

The Lib Dems’ sewage battlegrounds are concentrated in the South East and around London.

In a sign of how central the topic has become, in 94 per cent of constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland at least 50 per cent of voters said their decision would be influenced by the government’s handling of the issue of pollution in a Survation poll conducted last year, based on previous constituency boundaries.

In South West Surrey, Hunt’s former seat, 60 per cent of people said their vote would be influenced by the government’s handling of the pollution issue, with nearly half reporting that water quality in their area had become worse.

Jeremy Hunt election leaflets for Godalming and Ash

Residents in the village of Bramley in Godalming and Ash have had water on their mind a lot more in recent weeks. Roughly 600 households were told last month not to drink tap water following a leak of petrol into water pipes owned by Thames Water.

The company said it had replaced two water pipes last autumn, had been sampling the water since then, and had already made plans for further replacements before the water quality deteriorated.

Walking along the high street in the market town of Godalming, 29-year-old hairdresser Karen Dean said issues with water were now “beyond a joke”, adding that last year her taps were turned off for two weeks, for which she never received compensation.

“They’re out of touch,” she said of local politicians, adding that she no longer drinks tap water because of fears of sewage contamination.

Down the road, standing in her expansive front garden, 59-year-old Sarah Johnston said she desperately wanted someone to fix the water network infrastructure that she said is “falling apart”.

“I’m sort of disappointed with party politics and I’m more interested in electing someone who’s going to do something for my area,” said Johnston, who has voted Lib Dem most of her life but was on the fence between them and the Tories this time round.

Thames Water said it was building a new £160mn sewage treatment works for Guildford, opening in 2026, while planning upgrades to more than 250 other sites at Farnham, Haslemere and Godalming. The company is also planning a major upgrade in capacity at Henley sewage treatment works, expected to be completed in 2026.

Karen Dean no longer drinks tap water because of fears of sewage contamination © Anna Gordon/FT

Just 40 miles east in the constituency Winchester, Hampshire, on the outskirts of the South Downs national park, the Lib Dems have been fighting ferociously on the issue of water pollution in a bid to wrest the seat from the Tories.

The Lib Dem candidate Danny Chambers said poor water quality was coming up on the doorstep all the time, and that residents considered discharges in the local chalk stream, the river Itchen, as “ecological vandalism”. 

Former Tory MP Flick Drummond, who is battling to cling on to a 1,000-vote majority, came under fire earlier this year for advising residents of her then-seat in Meon Valley not to flush the toilet when it rained to prevent sewage spills.

Drummond was adamant that sewage was not coming up in conversations with voters and that these were instead dominated by pensions and the cost of living.

“The way they [Lib Dems] go on about it, it’s almost as if I collect people’s poo and put it in the water,” she said.

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