Ministers have given in to intense pressure from West Country Tory MPs, who have seen the Conservative vote in recent elections mauled due in large part to the region having the country's highest and fastest rising water bills.
Environmental groups say the result will be beaches in the nation's leading seaside tourism area in danger of failing European Bathing Water standards in future. Last year, almost a fifth of the area's beaches failed.
Thanks to the delay, South West Water's bills will rise by close to the rate of inflation. For five years, its charges have risen by an average of 9 per cent above inflation. The company's area, Devon and Cornwall, suffers above-average unemployment and has a high proportion of elderly people on pensions.
The delay on updating sewage treatment works at Torbay and Dartmouth in Devon and Falmouth and Mevagissey in Cornwall is due to be announced at the end of this month. Instead of pounds 70m being spent over two years, expenditure will be spread over 10.
Friends of the Earth said it would consider a complaint to the European Commission, which could lead to Britain's second appearance before the European Court of Justice on the dirty beaches issue.
But the region's Tory MPs, who have had several meetings with Department of the Environment ministers, took heart. 'It has become a major political issue here,' Anthony Steen said. Bills of about pounds 400 a year for a three-bedroom bungalow were a real hardship for pensioners in his South Hams constituency, he said.
The delay in spending pounds 70m on the four schemes will have a marked impact on the bills of its 580,000 domestic customers.
The Department of the Environment has advised the water industry price watchdog, Ian Byatt, that the schemes are no longer needed to comply with the European Union's bathing water directive. It says they are needed to comply with a more recent European directive, on sewage treatment, which means they need not be completed until as late as 2005, instead of 1995.
South West Water declined to comment. Its leaflets for the public had explained that the work was needed to stop crude sewage pollution.
The beaches at Polstreath and Pentewan near Mevagissey 'are sometimes littered with debris, including condoms and sanitary towels', one leaflet says.
Guy Linley-Adams, of Friends of the Earth, said: 'This shows the Government is far more concerned about saving the skin of jumpy Tory MPs than the real needs of the environment.'
The Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor, whose Truro constituency includes Mevagissey, said: 'This is bad news. Some of the region's most important resort areas will continue to have sewage problems. It hurts the environment and it could hurt jobs.'
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