The water companies responded to the Guardian’s requests for comment as follows.

A Severn Trent spokesperson said: “Since privatisation, Severn Trent has invested £25bn in infrastructure, including £100m each year improving the rivers in our region.

“We are proud to be sector leaders in measures set by Ofwat, including hitting 100% of environmental targets and being recognised with the highest four-star status from the Environment Agency. We are delivering a robust financial performance, leaving us well positioned to support our customers by keeping bills low, supporting future growth and investing for the long term.”

A United Utilities spokesperson said: “United Utilities has a strong track record of responsibly raising debt at low rates to fund long-term investment in our water and wastewater systems – and this investment allows us to deliver a better service for customers, to protect our environment and to ensure affordable bills. Over the last 10 years, the average household water bill in the north-west has not increased in real terms, while our inflation hedging policy has helped us to share £500m of outperformance payments with customers by reinvesting in our services.

“Our top four-star rating for environmental performance recognises that we have delivered the investment set out in our regulatory contract. There will be much more to do to meet the requirements of the new Environment Act, and our past performance shows that we will deliver on our obligations and do all we can to minimise the impact on customer bills.”

Wessex Water said: “YTL has been a stable owner of Wessex Water for more than 20 years, maintaining a 70% debt-to-regulatory-asset-base ratio and avoiding any risk to our financial stability.

“Dividends paid reflect the allowed regulated return, plus any outperformance rewards. YTL is currently using its dividends to fund a major housing development north of Bristol, creating jobs and boosting the economy.

“Latest storm overflow discharge results show a 60% reduction this year compared to last year, and we are investing £3m a month to further reduce how often they automatically operate.”

A South West Water spokesperson said: “In the last 30 years, South West Water has invested £9bn into our region’s water and wastewater infrastructure, delivering improved performance for our customers and the environment. This includes our region’s bathing waters, this year being rated 100% ‘good or excellent’, compared to 28% in 1991. Our investment has been delivered while simultaneously lowering costs to customers, with average household bills now lower than they were a decade ago.

“We are under way with our largest environmental investment programme in 15 years, and in April we launched WaterFit to go further and faster. We have been working hard to reduce the impact of storm overflows, and in this year’s bathing season across 860 miles of coastline, we have reduced spills by 50% on last year. Importantly, the duration of those spills has reduced by 75%.”

A Southern Water spokesperson said: “We operate in a tightly regulated environment, and our step-up in investment – totalling £2bn between 2020 and 2025 – has been assessed and approved by Ofwat to ensure we deliver the performance our customers want and deserve, at an affordable price, and in a sustainable way.”

A Thames Water spokesperson said: “Our investors have not received a dividend from Thames Water for the past five years and they are underwriting a turnaround plan that will see the company invest £2bn more in the network than we will receive from bills.

“Our investors are prioritising investment in improving service for customers and protecting the environment. To support our plans, shareholders are investing an initial £500m of new equity this financial year. We’re working with them on plans to provide a further £1bn of equity funding, which will be subject to certain conditions.

“This new capital will be used to further improve our operations, enhance outcomes for customers, and to protect the environment.”

On the £37m in dividends paid out for 2021-2, according to company accounts, Thames Water said: “The £37m payment was made to our immediate parent company to service group debt interest obligations and working capital requirements. It was not paid to our shareholders.”

A Yorkshire Water spokesperson said: “Shareholders have not received dividends for the last seven years and we are not expecting to pay dividends during this current five-year business plan period, which ends in 2025. Our shareholders are committed to investing in improved performance at Yorkshire Water, to protect the environment and to ensure the financial resilience of the business into the future. To this end, they have agreed to support the repayment of intercompany loans and additional investment to reduce storm overflow spills.

“We recently announced an additional £180m investment in storm overflows, taking our total investment in river water quality in the five years 2020-2025 to almost £1bn, indicating our commitment to improving water quality in Yorkshire’s rivers. We continue to support the government’s Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan and will look to go beyond the regulatory measures with our customers’ and regulators’ support. Water companies have a key role to play in improving water quality, but our investment alone will not achieve good ecological status for rivers. Coordinated action is needed by farmers, local authorities, businesses and local people, with the ultimate aim of improving water quality.”

An Anglian Water spokesperson said: “Anglian Water has invested around £20bn since privatisation to reduce leakage and to improve drinking water quality and the environment, which has been made possible almost entirely through private financing.

“This programme has funded infrastructure that is vital to improve resilience against a rapidly changing climate, as evidenced this summer, when Anglian Water avoided the need for a hosepipe ban despite operating in the driest region in the UK. We also recently launched a £135m package to help 330,000 customers struggling to pay their bills.

“The fact that we can finance multimillion-pound schemes demonstrates our robust financial platform and the longstanding support we have from our owners.”

Northumbrian Water did not want to comment.

• This article was amended on 5 December 2022. An earlier picture caption said that the photograph was of Dovestones reservoir, managed by Yorkshire Water. It is in fact Yeoman Hey reservoir, managed by United Utilities.


Sandra Laville Environment correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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