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English water industry apologizes for sewage spills

Water pollution has become an important issue in England, with sewage dumping making swimming unsafe and destroying ecosystems. Water companies have promised to get on top of the problem, but consumers are wary of more rate hikes.

(CN) — The English water industry issued an unprecedented apology Thursday amid growing public anger over the increasingly widespread release of untreated sewage into waterways.

Industry body Water UK accepted that water companies were “not acting quickly enough on sewage spills” and pledged to invest 10 billion pounds ($12.4 billion) over the next five years to upgrade pipes, capacity and treatment works. They claimed this would represent “the biggest modernization of sewers since the Victorian era.”

The apology follows more than 300,000 incidents of reported sewage dumping last year, amounting to more than 1.8 million hours of waste pouring into rivers and along the coastline, usually in contravention of U.K. law. Not all incidents of dumping are recorded, making the actual figures likely higher. A recent investigation by Channel 4 found that more than 1.5 million spills – equivalent to 1,200 years worth of raw sewage – has been dumped by water companies since 2016 alone.

The scale of sewage dumping has increased dramatically over the past decade. A 2022 parliamentary report found that not a single river in England was free from contamination, and only 14% of rivers had a good ecological status. Numerous seaside resorts across England, such as Torbay in Devon, have been forced to discourage swimmers from entering the sea due to persistent sewage discharge. And a number of English rivers, including the River Lym in Lyme Regis, and the River Deben in Suffolk, have been found to harbor levels of E-coli which greatly exceed legal limits.

The extensive discharge has led to English water quality being branded amongst the worst in Europe. The European Environment Agency found that the U.K. had the worst water quality for bathing in the EU in 2020 – the final year Britain was included in statistics before leaving the bloc. However, English water quality stands in contrast to other parts of the U.K., such as Wales and Scotland, which have both recorded record levels of good water quality over the last year. Water provision is a devolved issue in the United Kingdom, meaning Scotland and Wales have different arrangements to England.

In her Thursday statement, Water UK CEO Ruth Kelly said, “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: We are sorry. More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.”

The issue of water provision has gradually risen in public salience over the last few years, and particularly post-pandemic as a result of a boom in wild swimming across the country. A number of high-profile incidents have also raised the issue’s profile.

One such incident occurred in the city of Sheffield last December. A burst water main led to flooding of the gas supply network, with water overflowing out of household gas points, causing widespread property damage and leaving residents without heating during a historic cold snap. Locals, who required aid from the Red Cross during the emergency, furiously blamed the crisis on a lack of investment and maintenance by Yorkshire Water.

It is a criticism shared in many parts of the country. Campaigners against water pollution argue that a lack of historic investment in water infrastructure is widespread across England, and that the new investment would not be needed had sufficient maintenance been conducted over previous decades.

Greenpeace spokesperson Doug Parr echoed these criticisms Thursday.

“After years of relentlessly flooding our streams and beaches with raw sewage, an ‘oops, sorry’ from the water firms won’t cut it," Parr said. "What we need to see is urgent, massive investment to upgrade their tottering infrastructure, drastic reduction in sewage discharges, and beefed-up regulators to make sure it happens properly.”

English water provision – previously publicly administered – was broken up into a series of private regional monopolies in the late 1980s. Campaigners claim that since then 72 billion pounds ($90 billion) has been extracted from the monopolies and given to shareholders. Ownership of the water monopolies is diverse, including U.S. hedge funds, German asset managers and Gulf investment funds.

Last October water regulator Ofwat dropped its threat of legal action against Yorkshire Water, after the regional monopoly promised to recoup shareholder loans of 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion). The former chair of the U.K. Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, even went as far as to say water company bosses should be jailed for their role in the sewage crisis, stating last July that “fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a chief executive’s salary. Investors should no longer see England’s water monopolies as a one-way bet.”

However, English water regulation has largely been hamstrung by significant cuts in public funding, undertaken as part of the government’s post-2008 austerity agenda. Funding for the Environment Agency has been reduced by more than 50% as a result, with the body losing a significant percentage of its staff. The reductions have made it almost impossible for regulators to monitor the scale of the problem, or to collect sufficient evidence to conduct its enforcement duties effectively.

For English households, the announcement of extra investment is likely to increase anxiety rather than dampen it, with the funding intended to be secured through the raising of water bills. Over the last year the U.K. has experienced some of the largest increases in consumer energy bills – estimated to have pushed 27% of U.K. households into fuel poverty, meaning more than 10% of their income goes to energy costs.

While Water UK admit that “there will be modest upward pressure on customer bills” as a result of the promised investment, many British households lack sufficient discretionary income to absorb any further bill increases.

“What I’m actually hearing is no apology for the fact we’ve paid them for a service we haven’t got," said clean river campaigner Feargal Sharkey, who has led criticism of rising bills. "They are now suggesting that we should pay them a second time for a service we haven’t had.”

The pre-emptive apology and investment pledge by the water industry is the first public recognition from water companies of rising popular anger over sewage dumping. But, with a general election expected next year, it is also an attempt to stave off a more wide-ranging reorganization of water provision that the opposition Labour Party might be planning.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has previously pledged unlimited fines and new regional water boards in order to “stop turning our beaches and our rivers into open sewers.” Starmer has thus far balked at any broader reforms to the industry’s structure, however. English water companies may well have calculated that they are unlikely to do themselves any further reputational harm by demonstrating a willingness to clean up their act.

Categories / Business, Environment, Health, International

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