English water companies have got used to pumping raw sewage into the sea and rivers. An investigation launched last year by the regulator, Ofwat, and the Environment Agency, is a chance to put things right. But there are worrying signs that this opportunity to shine a light is in danger of being missed. The refusal by the Environment Agency to reveal which 2,000 sewage treatment works in England are being looked at, and whether this will lead to delays in dealing with new complaints, raises questions about its commitment to openness.
That the investigation is happening at all is due to huge efforts by campaigners. Concern over sewage dumps has been rising in response to water companies’ failure to tackle a longstanding problem that increased extreme weather, due to climate change, is expected to make worse. Discharges of untreated waste into the sea or rivers are supposed to happen only in exceptional circumstances, to reduce flood risk. Over recent years, it has become clear that rules are being routinely flouted by an industry that puts profits before environmental stewardship. At the same time, the Environment Agency’s record for punishing breaches has sharply declined following budget cuts. A report from a committee of MPs last week drew attention to the poor condition of rivers and called for a step change.
Last summer, Southern Water was fined a record £90m for pouring between 16bn and 21bn litres of raw sewage into protected coastal waters for financial gain. It was the worst environmental crime in the Environment Agency’s 25-year history. Yet the House of Commons last year stopped short of imposing a legal duty on water companies to stop releasing raw sewage, after ministers rejected a Lords amendment. The nine privatised water companies, which are regional monopolies, are instead obliged to make only “progressive reductions” in the amount they pollute. Now the approach of the Environment Agency to requests for information from the campaign group Fish Legal suggests an unwillingness to hold the industry publicly to account.
Not every company has the same repulsive track record as Southern Water. But the problem is systemic and cannot be blamed on one weak or unscrupulous board of directors. Over 11 years, £16.9bn has been awarded to water company shareholders in dividends, while debt has rocketed to £48bn. Bosses are rewarded for failure: Liv Garfield, chief executive of Severn Trent, was awarded £1.9m in bonuses in 2020, a year when the company poured untreated waste into waterways on nearly 61,000 occasions.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Scottish Water is publicly owned, charges less, and since 2002 has invested nearly 35% more, per household, than privatised English water companies in the infrastructure upgrades that are needed to limit pollution. Welsh Water is also non-profit. The English industry’s dismal track record makes renationalisation the obvious answer. In the short term, the bodies with responsibility for regulating water must toughen up. A five-year plan from Ofwat, expected soon, must put much stronger emphasis on environmental protection. And when the public seek information about which water companies are failing, they must be given it.