Water giants should be made to pay for spilling sewage

Britain’s water companies, guilty of polluting our rivers and seas with raw sewage, appear to have been let off the hook once again by the government.

Jawad Iqbal www.thetimes.co.uk

A system proposed by MPs to monitor the volume of human waste pumped into rivers has been rejected by ministers. It means that those running the water industry are being allowed to get away with doing far too little, too late, to tackle pollution, improve water quality and update infrastructure.

Water companies are permitted to release sewage when there is a risk of rainfall overwhelming the network but this is meant to be exceptionally rare. The reality is very different: water companies spilled raw sewage into rivers and the sea more than 1,000 times a day on average last year, according to official data. This feels routine rather than “exceptional”. The water companies gauge the frequency and length of spills but, crucially, do not measure the actual volume of sewage. They claim that volume monitoring is “difficult and expensive”.

Such claims of financial penury are hard to stomach from an industry that has collectively cut investment in waste water and sewage networks by almost a fifth in the 30 years since privatisation. Money that should have been used to improve infrastructure and tackle sewage outflows has gone, in part, into bumper pay packets for water chiefs. To take one example: Liv Garfield, chief executive of Severn Trent, was paid £2.8 million in 2020, including £1.9 million in bonuses.

The water companies are monopoly providers of an essential public service yet no one in authority seems able or willing to get a grip. Under government plans published in March, companies will be required to cut sewage spills by 40 per cent by 2040 and 80 per cent by 2050. That’s effectively a licence for inaction in the short term, but the environmental and public health crisis of contaminated waterways is not looming in the distant future — it is here now.

The Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) and the Environment Agency need stronger powers to take enforcement action against companies that are failing to deliver. Regulators appear weak and ineffectual against a powerful industry that seems intent on ignoring its wider corporate responsibilities.

Companies should be prevented from paying large bonuses to executives who have failed to curb sewage discharges into rivers and otherwise fallen short on pollution targets. The directors of companies should be held legally accountable for environmental pollution. That would focus minds.