Cuts in a doubling of the sewage dumping we see today (Picture: Getty Images)
Sewage doesn’t belong in our rivers – it’s up to this rotten government to fix it
Another dawn breaks – and with it, another reservoir runs dry, another water pipe bursts, another deluge of raw sewage is pumped into our precious rivers, seas and waterways.
The state of England’s water network is not simply grim, it is a national scandal.
You might assume this is merely a recent problem – reasoning that last month’s extreme heatwave is to blame, or that this wouldn’t be happening if parts of the country hadn’t seen the driest July since records began.
It’s true that those incidents have most certainly exacerbated the problem.
The climate emergency is right here, right now, and it’s not going away any time soon – so we’d better get used to it, and this lame duck Government had better start acting on it.
But the crisis on our water network goes back much further, and runs far deeper.
New data from the Environment Agency suggests the amount of sewage pumped into our waterways has increased by a staggering 2,553% in the past five years. 1 *trillion* litres of water were lost as a result of leaky and bursting pipes just last year.
Far from being limited to coastal constituencies like mine, where all of the beaches between Brighton and Hastings have seen a gushing cascade of excrement, every single wastewater company across England and Wales has missed its targets for tackling water pollution and sewage floods.
So who is to blame?
Well, let’s start with our profiteering water companies.
They were privatised under Thatcher in 1989, with the argument that they would be able to invest their profits back into the network, and carry out radical improvements.
They’ve certainly seen profits – with £72 billion in dividends going to shareholders, a £3.1 million ‘golden hello’ for Thames Water’s new CEO, and a 20% increase in bonuses for executives.
But we simply haven’t seen commensurate investment. Not a single new reservoir has been built in three decades.
If our water pipes, many of which date from Victorian times, continue to be replaced at their current rate, it will take 2,000 years to fix the whole network. Our entire water infrastructure is creaking at the seams – meanwhile these companies are over-paying to shareholders and under-delivering for the public.
And it’s not just the companies themselves – utterly impotent regulator Ofwat has been letting these companies off the hook for years.
Their CEO David Black appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme a couple of weeks ago and sounded, as one commentator put it, ‘like a spokesman for the water companies, rather than their regulator.’
Our politicians don’t get away scot-free either.
Liz Truss – frontrunner for the Tory leadership – might claim that she’s ‘trusted to deliver’ – but the one thing she did deliver when Environment Secretary back in 2015 was devastating austerity cuts to the Environment Agency, unsurprisingly resulting in a doubling of the sewage dumping we see today.
Tory MPs are also guilty for opting to toe the party line, rather than protect our waterways.
The amount of sewage pumped into our waterways has increased by a staggering 2,553% in the past five years
There’s been plenty of heat and not much light generated in the social media discussion around this – but what is clear is that last year, MPs could have adopted an amendment to the Environment Bill, which would put a legal duty on water companies to take immediate action on sewage pollution.
And instead of doing so, 265 Tories voted to take the teeth out of it. They had a chance to act – and they flunked it.
It’s very easy to be an armchair critic – but what’s the solution?
In the immediate term, Ofwat must place an enforcement order on water companies to compel them to carry out the job they’re actually meant to do – at the very least, it should be sanctioning the pay of blundering CEOs.
Last year, I grilled Sir James Bevan, CEO of the Environment Agency, on why potentially only 10% of water company breaches are leading to prosecutions, and why court actions against polluters fell by 98% between 2002-2020.
His inability to justify it essentially confirmed that the Environment Agency desperately needs more resources, and more power, to take action.
With some villages literally running out of water, we can’t let this dereliction of duty drag on a moment longer.
But the bottom line is that our privatised water system has utterly failed – and water networks must be brought back into public hands.
Public ownership both works better, and is more popular, than private ownership – as nationalised Scottish Water already proves.
Not only is it the most trusted public utility in the UK; it also invests more, offers cheaper bills for customers, and doesn’t pay out extortionate shareholder dividends.
During the cost of living scandal we see today, water bosses floundering in their jobs while still taking home obscene pay packets is pouring salt in the wounds of millions struggling to make ends meet.
The Green Party has long called for pay ratios – both in the water industry and others – so bosses earn no more than 10 times the salary of the lowest paid staff in their companies.
Here we have a big, bold action plan, just waiting to be adopted.
And while Tories like Liz Truss are happy to let the raw sewage flow freely, they’re putting giant obstacle blocks in front of the solutions.
The steady stream of excrement emanating from this Government over the past few years has just become a torrent – and it’s high time we stopped it.
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