Water firms accused of dumping sewage to avoid vital investment

Water companies have collectively cut investment in wastewater and sewage networks by almost a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised. They have collectively paid out more than £15 billion in dividends to shareholders since 2010 and their bosses have been paid more than £65 million in the past five years.

Ben Webster www.thetimes.co.uk 

Water companies have collectively cut investment in wastewater and sewage networks by almost a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised, according to analysis of official data.

Campaigners for cleaner rivers said the data showed some companies had chosen to dump raw sewage in waterways instead of investing adequately in treatment systems.

Average capital expenditure on wastewater and sewage networks fell from £2.98 billion a year in the 1990s to £2.4 billion in the past six years, according to data from Ofwat, the industry regulator, for the ten largest water companies in England and Wales.

The data was obtained via freedom of information requests by the Windrush Against Sewage Pollution campaign group and was first reported by the Financial Times. Ashley Smith, the group’s founder, said: “The data shows that some companies have become heavily reliant on being able to get away with illegal sewage dumping to prop up underinvestment in infrastructure.”

Raw sewage entered water courses more than 400,000 times last year and this was a reason why 84 per cent of rivers and lakes in England failed to meet the government’s target of good ecological status.

Last month the Environment Agency and Ofwat launched an investigation into more than 2,000 sewage treatment works after companies admitted they might have illegally released untreated sewage.

The government strengthened the environment bill, enacted last month, after facing a backbench rebellion over concerns that it was failing to be tough on water companies over sewage pollution. The new Environment Act requires the government to ensure that they progressively reduce the impacts of discharges from storm overflows.

Water companies have collectively paid out more than £15 billion in dividends to shareholders since 2010 and their bosses have been paid more than £65 million in the past five years.

Ofwat said overall investment had been broadly similar once other factors were taken into account, such as changes to accounting policies and spending on “nature-based solutions”.

A spokesman for the regulator said: “We continue to see huge investment going into the sector. The amount financed by investors has more than quadrupled since privatisation, while returns to investors have fallen over time, so more of the customer bill is going towards performance.”

A spokesman for Water UK, which represents water companies, said: “Private investment has brought more than £160 billion into an industry that was previously starved of cash. Meanwhile, bills have, in real terms, remained around the same level for over a decade and have fallen in both the last two years. The water industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the country with tight controls on company activity, including on the amount companies are permitted to invest each year.

“There is a widespread recognition that this is a critical decade if we are to tackle the many challenges we face. This is why we are pushing the government to encourage the economic regulator, Ofwat, to authorise schemes that meet government’s environment targets, including ending all ecological harm from overflows, ensuring resilient water supplies, and meeting our ambitious 2030 net-zero target while ensuring value for money, and great service, for customers.”

They do but you don’t! – Owl

Devon and Cornwall PCC asks if police force delivers value for money

www.bbc.co.uk

The force is set to grow by 188 officers in 2022/23

A police and crime commissioner (PCC) is asking residents if they think the force in their area delivers value for money ahead of a budget meeting.

Alison Hernandez can increase the Devon and Cornwall Police portion of council tax by up to £10 a year for a Band D Property for the next three years.

Currently those in band D households in Devon and Cornwall pay £236.56 a year in their policing precept.

A decision will be taken at a budget meeting in January.

“I really want to know if the public have confidence in policing and whether they think they have value for money for what they pay in their council tax,” said Ms Hernandez.

“And that will inform about how I set the council tax precept for the budget meeting.”

The force has added 498 officers since 2016/17 to 3,422 officers this financial year, Ms Hernandez added.

A further 188 officers will be added in 2022/23.

“This increase is helping to keep Devon and Cornwall as counties with some of the lowest recorded crime rates in the country, but there are still significant challenges ahead,” she said.

“Inflation means the force is facing significant additional costs, crime types, like domestic abuse, are now being reported and recorded more effectively.

“This is an extremely welcome development but it means our force is dealing with more calls for help than ever before.”

People have until midnight on 9 January to complete the survey on the PCC’s website.

Results will be published in a report to the 11 February meeting of the Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Panel.

Taylor Wimpey drops costly leasehold terms after investigation

Thousands of people who bought leasehold homes from the housebuilder Taylor Wimpey will be liberated from terms where their ground rent charges doubled every 10 years, after a long-running investigation by the UK competition watchdog.

Joanna Partridge www.theguardian.com 

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been looking into the contractual cost increases imposed by Taylor Wimpey and other property developers, which have left some owners struggling to sell or mortgage their homes, while their rights to their property can also be at risk if they fall behind on the payments.

Taylor Wimpey has voluntarily given formal commitments to the CMA that it will remove terms from leasehold contracts that cause ground rents to double in price– a move welcomed by leasehold campaigners.

The company has also agreed to remove terms from contracts that had previously been converted, so that the ground rent increased in line with the higher retail prices index (RPI) measure of inflation.

As a result, affected leaseholders’ ground rents will remain at the amount charged when they first bought their home and will not increase over time.

Taylor Wimpey has also confirmed to the CMA that it has stopped selling leasehold properties with doubling ground rent clauses.

Andrea Coscelli, the CMA chief executive, called the announcement “a huge step forward for leaseholders with Taylor Wimpey”.

He said: “These are totally unwarranted obligations that lead to people being trapped in their homes, struggling to sell or obtain a mortgage.”

The CMA launched enforcement action against four housing developers in September 2020 – Countryside, Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Developments and Persimmon Homes – which it believes may have broken consumer protection law in relation to leasehold homes.

In March, the CMA ordered Taylor Wimpey and developer Countryside Properties to remove the terms in their contracts, and wrote to them giving them the opportunity to sign formal commitments, known as undertakings.

Countryside Properties said in September it was voluntarily removing the terms from its contracts.

The housebuilder Persimmon also agreed at the time to offer leasehold homeowners the opportunity to buy the freehold of their property at a discounted price, and to make repayments to some homeowners who bought their freeholds.

In addition, the insurance group Aviva, which bought freeholds from developers, agreed in June to remove ground rent terms that were considered unfair and repay homeowners whose rents doubled after the CMA’s investigation.

Of the four housebuilders against whom the CMA launched enforcement action in September 2020, only the investigation into Barratt Developments is ongoing.

Coscelli said the CMA was prepared to take further action against companies.

“Other developers and freehold investors should now do the right thing for homeowners and remove these problematic clauses from their contracts. If they refuse, we stand ready to step in and take further action – through the courts if necessary,” he said.

There are more than 4m residential leasehold properties in England and Wales. The National Leasehold Campaign (NLC), a not-for-profit organisation created in 2018 to highlight the problems faced by leaseholders, celebrated the Taylor Wimpey announcement.

The NLC co-founder Cath Williams, a university lecturer from Liverpool who bought a leasehold home from the housebuilder, called the move “a real step forward”.

She said: “It will significantly reduce the cost to buy the freehold or extend the lease and ensures that any leaseholders that have converted to RPI from doubling are treated equitably. It validates what we at the NLC have been saying for years – converting doubling ground rents to RPI is not the answer.”

Taylor Wimpey’s chief executive, Pete Redfern, said: “Taylor Wimpey has always sought to do the right thing by its customers, shareholders and other stakeholders, and we are pleased that today’s voluntary undertakings will draw this issue to a full close, within our original financial provision.”

The company said it was making a financial offer, agreed with the CMA, to third-party freeholders of leases that Taylor Wimpey no longer owns, to enable their leaseholders to revert to a fixed ground rent.

As part of its review into the leasehold sector, the CMA is continuing its investigation into two investment groups, Brigante Properties, and Abacus Land and Adriatic Land.

We must protect the people and businesses hit hardest by Omicron

One of the more obvious and offensive evasions the government is presently engaged in is to engineer a sort of informal policy of reducing social interactions, but without ever authorising any specific regulations that would trigger a legal or moral obligation to provide further financial support for business.

Editorial www.independent.co.uk 

Aside from a modest package aimed at the leisure, hospitality and entertainment sectors announced by the chancellor, there is, so far, no sign of a repeat of the comprehensive furlough scheme to protect jobs. Nor has the Treasury indicated any willingness to boost sick pay for those self-isolating, doing the right thing, and not infecting others while asymptomatic. 

This line won’t hold if the Omicron virus epidemic starts to accelerate in the sort of ways the experts said was possible when it was first detected. The self-denying ordinances of millions of people has slowed the spread of the virus, but that has all too often meant cancelled works parties and nights in the pub or at the theatre. It looks very much, then, like those who have been trying to make a living from this line of work, rarely easy even in normal times, will be placed under further pressure. It is simply random and unfair. The approach taken in the earlier part of the pandemic was the right one – slow the spread of the virus and flatten the peaks of infection to protect the NHS, and support the parts of the economy and the families hardest hit through social insurance. It worked, and it can work again.

The least anyone, but especially those struggling to plan ahead in the service sector, should have a right to expect is for the government to level with them about prospects for the end of the year, new year and Hogmanay celebrations, and the possibility of recovery in January. The confusion is exacerbated by the mixed messages and hypocrisy emanating from Downing Street, and the impression of a prime minister not so much guided by science or even his own instincts, but those of the increasingly anti-scientific cabinet and bloc of MPs. They are driven, in turn, by an ever-more hysterical section of press delegitimising the likes of Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance as “Domesday scientists” and “lockdown fanatics”. They ask for the “incontrovertible evidence” that Omicron is a threat, but by then it could be too late, and a hard lockdown may be inevitable. 

The public is also right to ask why administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are pursuing different paths, and those in Ireland and parts of continental Europe are imposing lockdown-style measures. In England, Mr Johnson simply repeats the mantra that the data is under constant review. This helps no one – keeping data under hour-by-hour monitoring (if this is indeed what happens) is the least they can do during a public health emergency. People want to know more, and to understand the uncertainties. They want to know how they should behave at Christmas and new year, and business people need to understand what chance there is of them doing any business. They must be grateful to Prof Whitty at a personal level for his guidance on prioritising contacts, but it would be better, and clearer, if some fresh guidelines were issued that added some detail to such broad principles.

Encouragingly, from a purely public health standpoint, though not for businesses, many people have made their own decisions and erred on the side of caution. The booster vaccines, masks and even Covid status certificates impose little or no personal inconvenience, and actually help businesses retain consumer confidence that it is safe to enter their premises. Stronger measures, such as social distancing, the “rule of six” and so on will more seriously impact employers. It is a moment for decisions and for openness, neither conspicuous features of the disintegrating Johnson government.

For those following the data hour by hour. The message is stark.

COVID cases explode

covid.joinzoe.com  23 December

According to ZOE COVID Study incidence figures, in total there are currently 144,284 new daily symptomatic cases of COVID in the UK on average, based on PCR and LFT test data from up to three days ago [*]. An increase of 66% from 87,131 reported last week. A difference of 57,153 in a week is the largest jump in cases since March 2020, when the ZOE COVID Study launched (Graph 1).

In the vaccinated population (at least two doses) there are currently 56,346 new daily symptomatic cases in the UK. An increase of 52% from 27,000 new daily cases reported last week (Graph 2). This is the steepest rise in cases in vaccinated individuals since the ZOE COVID Study began tracking cases in vaccinated individuals on the 8th December 2020. 

The ZOE COVID Study now estimates its UK incidence figures with a two day lag, making the data even closer to real time and helping ZOE track the Omicron outbreak in the UK. 

The UK R value is estimated to be around 1.2 and regional R values are; England, 1.2, Wales, 1.0, Scotland, 1.1 (Table 1). The R value in London is 1.5. 

In terms of prevalence, on average 1 in 45 people in the UK currently have symptomatic COVID. In the regions, England, 1 in 43. Wales, 1 in 47. Scotland, 1 in 67. (Table 1).

Cases are now rising in all the regions of the UK, most rapidly in London. Cases are also rising fast in the South East, East of England, and the North West. (Graph 4).

Cases have exploded in the 18-54 year olds. These groups have now overtaken the 0-17 year olds who had had the highest rates since July. Cases in 55-74 have seen an uptick in cases too, but cases remain low in the over 75s. (Graph 3).

According to new analysis, ZOE estimates that half of all people experiencing new cold-like symptoms are likely to have symptomatic COVID-19 and not just a harmless ‘cold’. This has been calculated by comparing the number of new cases of a cold-like illness to the number of new cases of confirmed COVID (Graph 5).

ZOE’s predicted Long COVID incidence rate currently estimates, at current case rates, 2,394 people a day will go on to experience symptoms for longer than 12 weeks, based on previous variants (Graph 6). It’s not yet clear if the rate of Long COVID incidence remains constant with the Omicron variant.

The ZOE COVID Study incidence figures (new symptomatic cases) are based on reports from around 840,000 weekly contributors and the proportion of newly symptomatic users who have received positive swab tests. The latest survey figures were based on data from 64,119 recent swab tests done in the two weeks up to 20th December 2021. 

Professor Tim Spector, lead scientist on the ZOE COVID Study app, comments on the latest data:

“The number of new symptomatic cases has exploded over the last week, making it the biggest jump in cases I’ve seen since we started the ZOE COVID Study. Whilst the figures paint a worrying picture, the good news is that our preliminary data, based on around 2,500 probable cases reported on the ZOE app suggests that Omicron is more mild that Delta. However, this highly transmissible variant will infect many more people before the year is out. To help us slow the spread, my advice continues to be; avoid gathering indoors, and, if you are meeting up with people, check everyone is free of cold symptoms, test yourself just before and get fully vaccinated.

Over the past few days, we saw self-isolation rules already causing havoc for our frontline workers, so I’m pleased to see that the Government has reduced the isolation period down to seven days. However, what continues to shock me is the misinformation in their latest stay at home guidance about the symptoms of COVID. ZOE data clearly shows that the most important symptoms are no longer, a new continuous cough, a high temperature or loss of taste or smell. For most people, an Omicron positive case will feel much more like the common cold, starting with a sore throat, runny nose and a headache. You only need to ask a friend who has recently tested positive to find this out. We need to change public messaging urgently to save lives as half of people with cold-like symptoms now have COVID.”

To ZOE COVID Study app can be downloaded here: https://api.covidradar.org/launch/ 

The Government’s latest stay at home guidance can be viewed: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-stay-at-home-guidance/stay-at-home-guidance-for-households-with-possible-coronavirus-covid-19-infection#symptoms 

Graph 1. The ZOE COVID Study UK incidence figures total number of daily new cases over time.

Graph 2. The ZOE COVID Study UK incidence figures results over time; total number of new cases and new cases in fully vaccinated

Graph 3. Incidence by age group 

Graph 4. Prevalence rate by region

Graph 5. Comparison of new onset of cold-like illness and new onset of COVID with respiratory symptoms

Graph 6. Predicted Long COVID incidence over time

Please refer to the publication by Thompson at al. (2021) for details on how long covid rates in the population are modelled

Table 1. Incidence (daily new symptomatic cases)[*], R values and prevalence regional breakdown table 

Map of UK prevalence figures