The Times Leading Article www.thetimes.co.uk
It is barely 18 months since 265 Conservative MPs provoked a national outcry when they voted down a Lords amendment to the Environment Bill that would have required water companies to demonstrate progressive reductions in discharges of untreated sewage into Britain’s waterways. Life comes at you fast. The government has since launched no less than three water sector action plans, of which the latest was announced yesterday by Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary. This came in response to growing public anger at the dire state of the country’s rivers and coastal areas, as highlighted by The Times’s Clean it Up campaign, and ahead of local elections in which government inaction is an issue on doorsteps.
Yet there was little in yesterday’s [Monday’s] announcement to suggest that the government has a grip on the problem. The plan consisted merely of reheated existing policies, vague aspirations and promises of new consultations. The £1.6 billion Ms Coffey said would be spent on reducing discharges from storm overflows is money already earmarked for investment pending a rise in customer bills in 2025. Ms Coffey expects this investment to reduce spills by 10,000 by 2030. That compares to 300,000 spills in England and Wales last year, according to the Environment Agency.
It was a mark of the government’s shortage of ideas that it felt the need yesterday to reannounce a ban on wet wipes, as it has been doing with tedious regularity since 2018. Yet predictably, even this is subject to a consultation. Ironically, Ms Coffey chose to launch her new plan at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, just metres from a notorious spot on the banks of the Thames where piles of wet wipes accumulate whenever Thames Water discharges raw sewage into the river, which is seemingly every time it rains.
What is missing from Ms Coffey’s plan is radical action to get a grip on the decades of underinvestment by an industry that for far too long has been able to siphon off customer money to fund vast dividends for its shareholders and lavish salaries and bonuses for its executives. Ms Coffey talked of giving the Environment Agency the power to impose unlimited fines on water companies. Of course, the current limit of £250,000 is inadequate, but it is only weeks since she insisted that raising the cap to £250 million was excessive. Similarly, a proposal to give Ofwat, the regulator, new powers to link dividend payouts to environmental performance sounds promising, but it is unclear how it would work in practice.
A radical plan would recognise that the current system for managing the country’s water resources is broken. As Sir Dieter Helm, professor of economic policy at Oxford University, wrote in The Times last week, responsibility is spread across dozens of regulators, agencies, government departments, water companies and farmers, all operating in their own silos. Ms Coffey’s plan rightly recognises that a new approach is needed based on catchment areas, which can take an integrated approach to water supply and tackling pollution. But these catchment plans need integrated budgets and someone in charge of delivery, along with much more demanding targets to stop the spills.
Instead, it is customers who are expected to continue to pay the price of industry failure in the form of bills that are no longer simply a charge for the provision and maintenance of infrastructure but a regressive means of rationing supply. Thanks to decades of underinvestment, including no new reservoir for 30 years and the loss of 20 per cent of annual supply due to leaks, a country famous for its rainfall is forecast to be four billion litres a day short of what will be needed for public water supply by 2050. The government’s response is to push for increased use of water meters, while Ms Coffey calls for new standards for dual flush toilets. That is no solution if it still ends up in the river.