After the incident with the fan…
You may have noticed that sewage pollution is mainstream now and that pun slips off the keyboard as easily as a CEO slips off the hook for running a water company that appears to build potential illegality into day-to-day working. When Windrush Against Sewage Pollution kicked off campaigning in 2017 such an allegation would have been outrageous and the very suggestion that the water industry was dumping untreated sewage, let alone doing so deliberately and profitably, with government complicity, was treated with disbelief and extreme caution by media editors.
Five years on and in the wake of the brutally accurate exposure of hidden illegal pollution revealed by WASP’s data analyst Professor Peter Hammond, using artificial intelligence in his ‘Dark Spills’ work, and a raft of other reports on regulatory failure, the sewage scandal is even a feature of mainstream comedy. It is seldom out of the press and is well established as a national voting issue with political parties battling for a credible position. It is where we need it to be if there is to be any meaningful change; enough to save our rivers, and also some lakes and coastal waters
Therein lies the next big problem. Apart from politicians saying it is very bad and that they will force water companies to be less reckless, what is the plan to end monopoly control of arguably the country’s most vital asset (if we assume that no one is going to sell off our air supply – don’t hold your breath..) by voracious financial predators?
In 2021, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) did some fine work, setting out the known state of play that preceded the complex but ultimately deliberately ineffective Environment Act. Conservative MPs still carry the millstone of the vote to keep letting water companies pollute illegally. They will struggle to shake that off as they now try to fight local constituency battles against companies that they effectively made impervious to the ‘feet to fire holding’ charade that is being played out to a public that is becoming less credulous by the day.
Whilst excellent, the EAC work is in need of an update as so much of the evidence provided to it by the regulators now looks decidedly dodgy. Our knowledge of the fake nature of ‘investment’ and the shaky financial state of over-geared (borrowing v assets) water companies, riddled with unnecessary debt, used to fund dividends, has changed the backdrop to what is possibly the scam of the century.
One of the greatest scandals is the degree of incompetence, negligence and complicity shown by the regulators, especially the Environment Agency. The investigation being conducted by the Office for Environmental Protection which replaced the European Court of Justice (in a clever government move, which now protects it from any meaningful intervention), has indicated that it believes the EA, Ofwat and Defra may have all broken the law in the way they have mismanaged the water shambles.
The picture painted by the previous CEO and chair of the Environment Agency to the oversight committees of the EAC, Efra and the House of Lords Industry and Regulators look decidedly gilded as the reality is exposed, principally by campaigners like WASP rather than any public body. Prof Hammond also showed how water companies were cheating the operator self-monitoring of effluent standards. A recent WASP report showed that over one in three of the claimed annual audits of the companies’ monitoring didn’t actually happen. This is leaving the EA looking more like a spectator and facilitator of pollution for profit than a credible regulator.
Another embarrassing failure
Meanwhile, the government’s embarrassing attempt to ditch nutrient neutrality law on the spurious grounds that it was holding up housebuilding and stopping home ownership has unraveled as the Hose of Lords saw through it. The government’s motive was exposed: to shift the financial obligations for pollution mitigation attached to new houses (only in very sensitive environmental areas) from the building industry to the taxpayers. The attempt to force planners to lie about the environmental impact of housing was a particularly Orwellian touch that already features elsewhere in planning law but not quite so sinisterly. The speculated connection between this blunt attempt to subvert the law and the alleged refusal of the house builders to continue financing the Conservative Party to the tune of around 20% of its funding is hard to ignore.
Privatisation is unravelling as little more than a scam, where so called investors seem to have merely ‘invested’ billpayers’ money rather than their own, yet taken excessive dividends, apparently in contravention of Ofwat licenses. Even the water industry is now admitting that it has failed in its duty to invest. Against this background politicians know the public want something done. Yet with the exception of the Green Party and, to a degree, the Lib Dems, they refuse to contemplate public ownership or not-for-profit options.
Heavy lobbying from obscenely overpaid water company bosses on the major parties has yet to be fact countered by well -informed NGOs with plans to solve the problem, not simply live off the spoils of it. WASP now has an economist and an accountant in the voluntary team looking hard at the options as well as the skeletons and whose closets they are hidden in.
What can be done?
There are groups, and WASP is part of one, that are focused on developing knowledge and an intelligent way to manage our precious waters for public good and future generations. We are not there to provide big bucks for shareholder funds, often based overseas with zero interest in our quality of life as long as captive bill payers are alive enough for their direct debits to keep feeding money into the machine.
We need an independent inquiry, especially into the failure of the regulators and Defra who have stood aside and allowed the public and the environment to be captive victims to companies and funds that have only one duty – to maximize the returns for their shareholders. That has to end.
What can you do? Your vote will be the most powerful tool you have to save our waters and give future generations a decent place to live and whatever party you support, your views can influence politicians who want your tick in their box. The same applies in local politics. If you want to make a difference, tell your councillors, MPs, and parliamentary candidates and keep telling them.
And finally: these must be hard times for many good people we have encountered and many more that we haven’t, people who are at the sharp and less sharp ends of the water industry. We need these people, and we must make clear our respect for them and our understanding that it must feel quite uncomfortable working for increasingly pariah organisations. The same applies to the regulators. Those good people will be part of the recovery when it comes and, hopefully, the rotten core of those organisations will be consigned to a metaphorical skip.
(The views expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily those of West England Bylines).