Singer Feargal Sharkey on Britain’s river pollution

“Every time we were told we couldn’t do something, that just made us 50 times more likely to do it,” the punk celebrity Feargal Sharkey stated of starting his occupation in Northern Ireland’s Derry. The town used to be critically suffering from the rustic’s violent sectarian struggle, with “people saying bands from Derry don’t make records or write their own songs”. But in 1978, the Undertones defied the Troubles, launched a punk vintage, “Teenage Kicks”; a line from which the mythical DJ John Peel incorporated as an epitaph on his grave.

Now dwelling in London along with his spouse and kids, the 63-year-old has stepped again from the song industry, having gained an OBE for his products and services to the trade in 2019. Far from a quiet retirement, alternatively, the reminiscence of his embattled Catholic upbringing is rarely some distance from Sharkey’s thoughts – and he has since change into one of the most UK’s maximum vocal campaigners for a distinct roughly underdog: the surroundings.

When we met closing week on the Amwell Magna fishery in Hertfordshire, Sharkey’s disarming turns of word had been in complete float. The scene on the nation’s oldest fly-fishing membership gave the impression bucolic: ducks tended their chicks on riverbanks lined in forget-me-nots and weeping willows; however additionally it is a panorama of intercourse, dying and Darwinian combat, the lyricist jogged my memory. “All you get is a bit of a shag, then you’re dead,” he quipped of the darting, short-lived mayflies.

He is similarly direct concerning the wider destiny of Britain’s rivers: “The simple truth is water companies have been profiteering at the expense of the environment,” he stated with the passion of a hardened activist. 

There is even a parallel, Sharkey believes, in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cavalier option to Northern Ireland post-Brexit and the perilous state of Britain’s rivers – with unscrupulous politicians failing to prioritise long-term well-being over “parochial politics” and speedy political achieve. “When the boss thinks he can stand up in public and lie,” Sharkey stated, “what do you think the rest of the middle management has been doing?”

According to the water trade regulator Ofwat, water firms have stemmed water losses and stored expenses low, whilst handing over “excellent quality drinking water and bathing water”. Yet such self-congratulation doesn’t upload up: in 2020 the United Kingdom used to be ranked closing in Europe for bathing water high quality, with rivers around the nation house to bad quantities of chemical compounds and sewage

This is in part because of the United Kingdom’s out of date sewer gadget, in part pushed by way of run-off from agricultural fields and in part as a result of water firms robotically free up uncooked sewage into waterways, stated Sharkey. Just 14 in line with cent of English rivers are in excellent ecological situation, display reputable figures, and none are of excellent chemical standing. This has profound penalties for Britain’s already depleted biodiversity, with greater than a 10th of UK freshwater and wetland species threatened with extinction, from water voles to kingfishers.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s UK windfall tax has un-greened a green idea]

Of explicit worry to Sharkey are the rustic’s chalk streams, which might be hastily drying up. Formed from the skeletal stays of hundreds of tiny phytoplankton that sank to the ground of the ocean tens of millions of years in the past, the ensuing carbonate rock supplies “the best water filter in the world”. This is glorious information for the wealthy flora and fauna those ecosystems fortify, Sharkey enthused, but additionally it is a boon for water firms, who’re ready to suck huge amounts out of the south-east’s regional aquifers at relatively low charge.

Even with this provide, London is operating out of water to drink as a result of emerging call for, lowering rainfall and inadequate infrastructure wherein to retailer groundwater. Too little funding is being pumped again into development new sewers or reservoirs, Sharkey believes, regardless of the truth that 9 water and sewage firms in England reportedly made just about £2.8bn in earnings in 2020-21. “They are profiting from environmental decimation. And that has got to stop.” 

A fly-fishing environmentalist would possibly appear an incongruous calling for a former punk rocker, however his zeal for river coverage is a fabricated from his Northern Irish roots. Fishing used to be one of the most extracurricular actions introduced by way of his college, and the singer recollects how, elderly ten, he would attend protests along with his Catholic oldsters, who would “walk down the middle of motorways between Belfast and Dublin, trying to kick up an enormous fuss”.

“Going back that way [to the Troubles] is simply not an option, and should never, ever be allowed to be part of a conversation,” he warned as considerations upward thrust about the way forward for the ancient Good Friday peace settlement as a result of the United Kingdom executive’s risk to switch the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol. “Yet here we are, staring down the bloody gun barrel again, philosophically and potentially physically.”

Short-sighted politics may be deepening the river disaster, Sharkey persevered. “This government has run out of capacity,” he lamented. Brexit, Covid and the cost-of-living disaster have left “a team of people that aren’t necessarily up to the job”, not able to take care of anything, together with water air pollution. And he blames the regulatory our bodies, Ofwat and the Environment Agency (EA) for failing to put into effect the regulation: “They’re running about like cockroaches because someone turned the light on.”

Any fines which were issued, he steered, were too small and sporadic to supply reform. Thames Water used to be fined a file £20m in 2017 for pumping 1.9 billion litres of untreated sewage into the river Thames; however this 12 months, water firms in England are once more underneath investigation by way of the EA and Ofwat for freeing untreated waste into waterways.

At a up to date parliamentary committee listening to, Sharkey used to be dismayed to look the EA leader, James Bevan, say the regulator “deliberately did not enforce” 2018 farming regulations for water high quality since the executive informed it to not. A spokesperson from the Department for Environment stated this used to be simplest the case for the primary 12 months following their advent, to allow farmers time to conform. Yet Sharkey’s fears run deep: “I suspect this is shaping up possibly to be the most deregulatory government, probably since the Second World War.”

But he isn’t on my own in his battles. There is a rising motion calling for water control reform – starting from nationwide organisations equivalent to Surfers Against Sewage to native campaigns. Amie Battams, a tender city fly-fisher and YouTuber, who Sharkey used to be web hosting on the Amwell membership at the day we met, regularly tweets concerning the sewage she witnesses being pumped into London’s River Wandle in an try to safeguard her cherished chalk move.

In phrases of coverage objectives, Sharkey and his fellow travellers wish to see “a piece of legislation making every single director of those water companies personally liable”; a greater gadget to measure the quantity of dumped sewage; and, added Ali Morse of the Wildlife Trusts, an overarching goal at the well being of our waters underneath the Environment Act.

There are indicators of development. In reaction to suggestions in a up to date Environmental Audit Committee record, the federal government and Ofwat have authorised the want to prioritise long-term funding within the sewer community and nature-based answers, paving the way in which for an improve to England’s crumbling Victorian infrastructure.

“At the end of the day, all people actually want from their f***ing politicians is hope,” summed up the “Teenage Kicks” singer, now a father of youngsters himself. “Hope that tomorrow will be a bit better than today.”

[See also: The raw sewage dumped into the UK’s rivers reveals a broken model]

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