Tories rehashing, republishing, repolishing and re-presenting years-old failed policies. It reeks of desperation.

Feargal Sharkey on Thérèse Coffey’s water pollution plan

Desperate revival of failed policies doesn’t add up

Feargal Sharkey 

What we need is a government with the vision and leadership to stand up to the water industry and hold them properly to account. What we have, as we have seen today, is a government trying to scrabble together something that looks like a policy, ahead of the local elections.

This plan consists of rehashing, republishing, repolishing and re-presenting years-old failed policies. It reeks of desperation.

Take, for instance, wet wipes. It would be great to ban plastic wet wipes.

Presumably that’s why this is the third time in the past five years that the government has said it will ban them. Will it happen? On past experience, no.

Then they say that they are bringing forward £1.6 billion in investment to stop 10,000 sewage dumps a year. It’s a big number, until you realise how many sewage dumps there are a year: 300,000. So this is 3 per cent. That’s not a plan. That’s desperation.

Or what about the unlimited fines for water companies? Before Christmas, they announced they would increase fines to £250 million. In January, the chairman of the Environment Agency said that was “crazy”. A month later Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, said it was disproportionate.

We are meant to believe that in a matter of weeks they have had this miraculous vision on the road to the sewage treatment works, and are converted to the idea that we should have not merely £250 million, but unlimited, fines. It doesn’t add up. Ofwat already has the power to impose a fine that is 10 per cent of a company’s annual turnover. How many times has it done so in the past 30 years? Once.

What in God’s name is the point of creating a power when there is clearly no will to use it?

The maddening thing is, if it had the will and the wherewithal, there is already nothing to prevent the government bringing these companies to heel.

Coffey could say, “Here’s what is going to happen for the next ten or 15 years until we fix this. This is what you’re going to pay your shareholders. This is what you’re going to pay your executives. This is what you’re going to invest in your network and this is what you’re going to use to pay down that debt you’re walking around with.”

We would all end up with a nice new shiny sewage system and secure water supply. They’d end up with a company that’s debt-free, profitable and looking forward to a prosperous future. She could start that process this afternoon. But she won’t.

What is required is a properly managed, costed and deliverable ten or 15-year plan — along with people who can be held accountable for delivering it.

None of that exists and, until it does, none of this is going to stop.