Were Victor Meldrew real, he would have thrown down his Daily Mirror shouting grumpily “I don’t believe it”. The ‘Great Discharge of Poo Revelation’ (GDPR) as we should now call it, represents a first-order regulatory failure.
For a start, the state of coastal waters and inland water bodies in receipt of raw sewage has been known for some time. It is widely known now that sewage discharges to our rivers have occurred in plain sight across England and Wales. Yet it was only in April this year that this scandal entered headlines in a big way, as threats of legal actions against polluters hit the news media. Another factor was that the pollution is now disproportionately affecting constituencies with Tory MPs.
Storm water overflows
Due to our antiquated water treatment systems, many discharges, such as occur at times of heavy rainfall, are considered ‘exceptional circumstances’. Our Victorian forebears did not always separate sewage effluent sensu stricto from storm water runoff, meaning that storm water overflows are typically used as runoff from urban surfaces during heavy rainfall events. Simply stated, it all goes down the same sewer.
Water companies are allowed to discharge untreated sewage into rivers, lakes and seas only at times of exceptional rainfall and only then if they are already treating a specified volume of sewage, known as ‘flow to full treatment’. Technically if the flow into a sewage treatment works is more than six times a previously defined ‘dry weather flow’ then the water undertaking may discharge untreated sewage.
However this condition is being used to justify discharges of untreated sewage even in dry periods. One example is when groundwater levels are high, water drains into leaky sewers (the Victorians again!) and the ‘six times dry weather flow’ criterion is met. Water companies have discharge raw sewage for months under this circumstance – see Fairford 2023.
Blockages such as those caused by ‘fatbergs’, may have similar impacts yet there is no dilution by storm water of the resulting effluent. The effluent must be discharged somewhere to prevent it backing up into properties.
One solution is the construction of storm water retention basins or ponds. For new developments retention ponds are usually required but there is little evidence of water companies constructing the basins needed to hold back the combined flows from existing properties. This is standard procedure in Germany, yet, apart from the Thames Tideway scheme, rare in UK. Another option is for homeowners to install water butts to retain roof drainage on existing properties. Several water companies offer free water butts, yet there is little take-up by the public and many old properties do not have the space for a water butt.
The water companies now admit that infrastructure investment, neglected for 30 years, is now needed but have the gall to suggest we customers pay for it on our water rates.
Ministers had largely been quiet about the need to invest in infrastructure as private equity took over the water companies. The scandal is deepened because a report by the Competition Commission (now the Competition and Markets Authority) in 2002, had never been published in full. We may well wonder if Ofwat, the economic regulator of the water industry, was asleep, or maybe is guilty of mindful neglect?
In March of last year, Ofwat maintained that over the last 20 years, water industry ‘investment had increased’, yet even their own data shows that the capital expenditure needed for infrastructure improvements has remained stagnant. Either way it is not a good look, as 20 years is surely enough to address the problem, and the time-period falls in line with industry planning horizons. The failure to instruct the water companies to invest in sewage holding and sewage treatment technology has been catastrophic.
Monitoring and accountability
The monitoring regime has been ineffectual because the Environment Agency did not prevent raw sewage discharges. Here is an apparent failure of two ‘competent authorities’ to protect the health of humans, animals, and the wider environment. Whatever the technicalities, ‘scandal’ is not an over-statement.
The insult to injury comes in the form of an attempt to wriggle out of paying for improvements out of company profits. Some £14.7bn is now due to be paid to shareholders, surely enough for some major infrastructure improvements.
The apology from Water UK’s chair (and renegade Labour MP), Ruth Kelly, looks like crocodile tears about the sewage crisis. It was similar in tone to ‘apologies’ from politicians about affairs despite the serious impact on their marriages and family. The water industry or its shareholders ‘apologise’ bit are disinclined to pick up the tab.
Some contrition from Water UK! And apologies being cheap, the consumers are to cough up the required investment that we though that we had already paid for. At least now Downing Street itself is now concerned that the consumer be being placed ahead of profit. Maybe a general election is in the offing? We certainly seem to be in a condition of standoff until something is resolved, but the efforts of the regulators and privatised water undertakings stink, arguably more than a poorly managed sewer.
Bath MP Wera Hobhouse takes Wessex Water to task for discharging sewage whilst their executives seem to attract indecent bonuses. Perhaps our readers are aware that Wessex Water’s chief executive, Colin Skellett OBE, has been quiet of late? This may be his shame over ‘GDPR’, but he is also in receipt of a cool £61,548 bonus for the ‘company’s environmental performance’ (sic). Best keep quiet about that one.
Among other campaigners, the vociferous Fergal Sharkey finds such transactions wholly unacceptable. Even West England Bylines has found it necessary to publish a weekly ‘Sewage Watch’ to highlight the continual flouting of the law by water companies.
So where to now?
Evidently the long planning horizons familiar to water industry strategists are not workable in solving the present catastrophe. Neither is the investment strategy of Ofwat, nor the monitoring and enforcement strategies we might have hoped for from the Environment Agency fit for purpose. That UK-based shareholders are also consumers of water services seems to have passed without comment.
Shareholder dividends are now king, with our health and environment secondary. I don’t believe it, but our water industry in England and Wales is a damaging enterprise. We should demand return of these public services to public hands, or at least for them to be managed on a not-for-profit basis.
Stop press update:
“OK, it’s fair enough Mr Skellett (CEO of Wessex Water), so we’ll make a deal. I’ll keep my fats and oils out of your drains, if you can keep the shit out of our rivers, lakes and the sea”.Hadrian Cook (‘The Victor Meldrew of Salisbury’)