I have an idea in the public policy/apocalyptic light entertainment space. No water company boss should be allowed to collect their salary or bonus unless they take a long and exhaustively reported dip in the waters of one of the beaches they’ve pumped sewage into that same morning. Just think of it. The first wild swimming article you’d genuinely want to read.
In the meantime, the water firms keep on doing it, with one of the hottest summers on record punctuated by daily reports of both drought and sewage discharge. Environment Agency data suggests the amount of raw sewage pumped into seas and rivers by the water companies has increased 2,553% in the past five years. To Jonathan Swift, scatological humour seemed the rational satirical response to the state of early 18th-century politics. To us, it’s simply the factual state of affairs. There’s no real need to write a metaphorical poem about parliamentarians dabbling in their dung, since any MP who has holidayed on these shores this summer has literally done it.
In England, the water firms have paid £72bn in shareholder dividends since privatisation, and are somehow still whining about the difficulty of finding money to invest in infrastructure (privatisation was, strangely, always cited as the best way of boosting said infrastructure). So you have to ask: what was it that first attracted water company CEOs to a poorly regulated monopoly from which they have collectively siphoned out a combined £58m in salaries and bonuses since 2017, and where average boss bonuses have increased 20% in the past year of corporate failure alone? I guess you’d have to go with: love of water. Just a deep and abiding fascination with the famous clear liquid, the old H2O, and any other aquatic synonymisation that will ideally secure me a place in Second Mentions. I keep trying to picture that bit of the job interview where the would-be water CEOs explain that they are ultimately just passionate about water, and are in no way corporate sharks who just need something or other to swim through on the way to their economic prey.
Naturally, there’s been a renewed focus on the politicians who got us here. Yesterday the Guardian revealed that sewage discharge doubled after a huge “efficiency” cut to the Environment Agency in 2015, ordered by then environment secretary Liz Truss. Truss … of course, of course. Special mention must also be made of all the Conservative MPs who – on the very eve of Boris Johnson’s Cop26 climate conference last year – opted to vote against stopping sewage being dumped in rivers, without requiring firms by law to make the urgent investments needed to stop it happening for millions of hours, year after year. Once again, you really do have to marvel at the cheapness and beaten-ness of the UK. At least in the US, it costs lobbyists untold millions to get individual politicians to sell their soul, and do grotesque things to benefit the industries they represent. Yet every time you see footage of raw sewage power-hosing out on to a UK beach in the constituency of someone who voted for it to be allowed, do reflect on the fact that it probably only cost some public affairs wanker a couple of Champions League tickets.
So that’s the politicians. Yet what of the firms themselves, and the so-called “regulator”, Ofwat? So few of us know our watery overlords. Way back when I worked on this newspaper’s Diary column, we’d occasionally announce new featured characters culled from whatever were the enraging news stories of the time. These selections of horrors and irritants were unveiled seasonally, with fanfares such as “Announcing our Spring Collection” and “We are pleased to confirm the following lines will be carried in our Summer Collection …”.
Given the state of this utility alone – more on the others later this week – I very much feel a new collection needs to be hastened out. It does seem rather unfair that the attention lingers only on the politicians, when the water company CEOs are themselves doing so much to delight us, yet somehow fly under the household-name radar. Let’s immediately add them to the Autumn Collection. A sarcastically warm welcome to public life, then, to Sarah Bentley, boss of Thames Water. Come on out, Sarah! Joining her are CEO of Anglian Water, Peter Simpson, and Yorkshire Water’s Nicola Shaw. Don’t be shy, guys. A slow clap too for Wessex Water’s Colin Skellett, Steve Mogford of United Utilities, South West Water’s Susan Davy, Southern Water’s Lawrence Gosden, Severn Trent’s Liv Garfield and Northumbrian Water’s Heidi Mottram. Welcome, all! We do hope to be spraying much, much more unsolicited content about you across the pages and airwaves over the coming months, the better to showcase your very British success stories. And don’t let’s forget David Black, chief exec of Ofwat, which – despite the increasingly deafening public outcry – can’t even be bothered using its full range of powers to sanction water company directors via their remuneration packages. What are you waiting for, David?!
Then again what is anyone waiting for, as the public realm plunges deeper into chaos and dysfunction, other than Liz Truss to make landfall? As for the type of place she’s going to blow into, that has passed beyond the realm of metaphor and become all too grimly literal. Yup, welcome to Shit Creek. Population: us.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist
What Just Happened?! by Marina Hyde (Guardian Faber, £18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at the Guardian Bookshop. Delivery charges may apply
Marina Hyde will be in conversation with Richard Osman at a Guardian Live event in London on 11 October. Join them in person or via the livestream – book tickets via the Guardian Live website