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By Mineral Products Association

Effluent Is Turning The Affluent Green

9 min read

The Greens hope a wave of outrage over the polluted River Waveney will help deliver a seismic victory where the Tories have "always" won.

“We have raw sewage running down the street every single time we get heavy rain. You have to walk through it. It's grim. It's medieval.”

Lucy Elkin, a Green Party councillor, is gesturing to the road leading uphill out of Eye, a small village on the Suffolk, Norfolk border. When rainfall is heavy, residents have grown used to excrement, menstrual products and general detritus coursing down the road back into the village stream, flowing past cottages, into the River Waveney.

“I've repeatedly been talking to Anglian Water and planning department about drainage issues in the town,” says Elkin. “We've had severe flooding, so lots of people have had water coming into their homes and sewage in their homes through that route. We've been pretty active.”

Eye sits in the new Waveney Valley constituency straddling Suffolk and Norfolk, with the River Waveney flowing across its border. The Waveney is the symbolic heart of this new seat. But now, perceived government failures to reduce sewage pollution are turning traditionally wealthy, Conservative voting residents towards a party with big aspirations this election: the Greens.

A recent Wildlife Trusts poll revealed nearly 80 per cent of the public think the majority of the main parties are faring poorly on river pollution. Yet nearly two in five said they would vote based on environmental policies offered by candidates. This is a sentiment Adrian Ramsay, leader of the Green Party and Waveney Valley candidate, is tapping into.

“People are deeply angry about the sewage issues,” he says. “We know that in the local rivers, including the river Waveney, which gives the name to the Waveney valley constituency, the testing that we have done with local campaigners has shown levels of E. coli and phosphate way, way above the recommended legal limits.”

The Conservative government has ramped up monitoring of sewage overflows in recent years, and instructed water regulator Ofwat to authorise companies to invest into storm overflow reduction. It also removed the cap on civil fines water companies could face for illegal pollution incidents, placing the money into a fund for river restoration projects.

“Conservative ministers do deserve some credit for the measures they've taken and with the plan for water that they've put out last year,” says Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network.

However, the Green Party would go further: pledging to nationalise water companies and freeze shareholder dividends until river pollution was cleared, with more details to come in their manifesto.

Although Ramsay, who was selected to represent Waveney Valley three years ago, does not live in the constituency, he is now a recognisable face. That's according to Green councillor Tim Weller, who PoliticsHome spoke to in one of Eye’s two cafes.

The Waveney Valley is a top target seat for the Greens at the 4 July General Election (Alamy)

“You don't have to look to Twitter to see if he's been out and about as you do with Richard [Richard Rout, Conservative candidate for Waveney Valley]. Whenever I've spoken to people on doorsteps, and if I've got a leaflet with his face on it, they say ‘I've seen him’ or ‘I recognise him’ or ‘we remember what he said on the news about something’. He's definitely making himself available.”

“Adrian works hard and Conservative voters like that,” says Green peer Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb. “Plus they understand nature. Adrian with his green policies doesn’t frighten them.”

The Greens says this stands in stark contrast to the Conservatives’ presence in Eye, or lack of it. Dan Poulter – or “Dr Dan” as several people we bump into in Eye call him – had been the area’s MP for 14 years. However, Elkin says he has “checked out” in recent years. Poulter, a former minister, defected from the Tories to Labour in April. He is not standing at the 4 July General Election, however.

“We've had Dr Dan from the time I've lived here,” says Elkin.

“It was a very safe Conservative seat and I do know friends who went to see him as their MP, who said actually, personally he was he was very helpful to them. But I've also talked to a lot of people who felt that he checked out in recent years and he just he wasn't around. We never saw him. He was very difficult to contact on social media. He doesn't do surgeries. He was just a very absent MP.”

But now the election campaign is underway, the councillors claim they have not seen the Conservatives’ candidate Richard Rout out door knocking. Two residents said they had not received Conservative campaign literature through their doors. Driving into and out of Eye, the only signs outside houses are lurid Green, and for Ramsay. 

“There's something about a sense of complacency with Tories in this area, because historically they’ve always won elections,” says Weller. “There may be something about: ‘it doesn't really matter if we do this, if we push this terribly hard, because there's an expectation that we’ll come out tops’. But I think this election is going to be different.”

Though the Green Party is standing candidates in every seat at the election – a record-breaking feat for them – Waveney Valley is one of just four seats they are actively targeting.

“There's lots of people already saying they're planning to vote Green, because they know that we’re the main challenger in this constituency, they want to see a change, we've got a good track record.  And then for those who are still to make up their mind, the sewage issue matters.”

The Greens have reason to feel confident. Last year the party won control of Mid Suffolk District Council, taking 24 of 34 seats. In May, the party secured its highest number of elected councillors in history, and took more seats from the Conservatives than Labour. Three in five councils in Suffolk are now run by the Green Party.

However, Conservative candidate Rout points out that success at the locals – where Labour stood fewer candidates than the other two parties – does not guarantee the Greens seats in Westminster.

“I'm certainly not getting the impression that each door I knock on it's trying to convince somebody that is saying that they are supporting the Greens,” he says.

The results of the Bury St Edmunds 2019 vote may be looming large in the Green Party consciousness. After successes in the Mid-Suffolk locals and a capable candidate to boot, the Greens, just like today, were feeling buoyant heading into the general election. However, they ended up third behind Labour.

The Greens hope local concern over sewage in the local river will help them pull off a major victory in the Waveney Valley (Alamy)

“I'm taking the Green threat seriously, but I can't possibly take my eye off Labour, because everything I'm seeing in terms of those informed models are suggesting Labour are the main threat,” says Rout.

The polls have also painted a worrying picture for the Greens in recent weeks. At the time of writing, a YouGov poll put the Greens were polling more than 10 percentage points behind Labour in this constiuency. The Labour candidate is local environmental scientist Gurpreet Padda. But the Greens are adamant there is a disparity between national polls and doorstep sentiment.

“If you look at most of the MRP polls at the moment, then they'll say that the key opposition for Conservatives is Labour. We know that that's not the case from knocking on doors, it just isn't,” says Weller.

Elkin adds that only around six people turned out for Labour’s campaign launch, but more than 50 attended for the Greens. “As far as I know that was their launch, but it was fairly modest in scale,” she says with a laugh.

Weller gets up a tactical voting website on his phone. Just that day, the website had changed to advise a vote for the Greens in Waveney Valley to keep the Tories out.

In response, Padda said: "In Waveney Valley the Greens are using their door step surveys and optics to misinform voters. Our door step survey shows that we are the main competition for the Conservatives, as per the MRP polls. There were eleven at our launch during the day when most of our activists were working. Yesterday in Diss we had many more and we are gathering support as the campaign grows.

"One of my biggest supporters is former veteran Alf, who turned 100 last week who is out campaigning for me wanting to see a Labour MP in Waveney Valley. I’m proud to represent women in politics – and I won’t be bullied out."

The Green Party is making sewage pollution a key dividing line with the Conservatives at this election. However, in Rout’s experience, sewage doesn’t matter to voters unless it personally affects them. In a recent survey he put out to voters, sewage did not appear in the top five local issues.

“I've met with Anglian Water and Essex and Suffolk water to push them to do more and see what more can be done, how we can apply pressure to Ofwat. Because let's face it, we all want clean water, we all say they have insights. And if elected, I'll be striving to achieve that. But it's not the number one issue on the doorstep.”

The Greens agree that sewage is just one of many issues that matter to voters. But crucially, sewage pollution is the issue that is opening Conservative voting doors to the Green Party, and granting them a hearing. From there, the Greens’ strategy is for candidates to prove themselves as hardworking, amenable and approachable.

“We've been able to generate enough interest in the river as a source of our focus on the environment and biodiversity. But then that leads into conversations about the other things that the Greens are delivering, and have actually been delivering. Whereas previously, our administration and Tory predecessors have talked a lot about doing things but we’ve not seen the delivery,” says Weller.  “That is our USP.”

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