Sewage Crisis

Renationalising water could fix sewage crisis – but no major party will do it

Privatised water companies discharged raw sewage into UK waters for 3.6 million hours in 2023. Politicians promise reform, but current plans lack detail. The public demands cleaner water and stricter regulation.

Renationalising water could fix sewage crisis – but no major party will do it

P rivatised water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and the sea around England and Wales for 3.6 million hours in 2023 – double the previous year’s total. For a sense of how bad the problem is today, check this map of the south-east of the UK which shows how much sewage water companies are dumping right now and for how long.

As a water researcher, I am happy to see water quality high on the political agenda but aggrieved that it is because of the sewage scandal that has engulfed the UK, and especially England and Wales, in the past couple of years.

Companies have discharged more raw sewage than they are legally allowed to and the Environment Agency, as responsible regulator in England, has been unable to monitor and control offenders as its environmental protection budget was halved between 2010 and 2020. Water firms have neglected to invest in new and enlarged wastewater treatment works for decades and so the ageing system is struggling to meet demand.

An angry public demands cleaner water and changes to how water companies are regulated and run. All major political parties have at least something to say about it in their pitch to voters ahead of July 4 general election.

No clear blue water between Tories and Labour

The Conservative Party doesn’t mention the word “sewage” in its manifesto. The party instead highlights what it sees as the government’s achievements in reducing leaks from water pipes, preventing supply interruptions and raising the proportion of designated bathing water sites classified as “good” or “excellent” from 76% in 2010 to 90% in 2023.

These “achievements” are misleading, however. Most of the 451 designated bathing water sites are around the coast, not rivers. Bathing sites only occupy a small stretch of a river (of which many are rated poorly) and most sewage dumpings take place elsewhere along the river, which is not accounted for in the statistics the Tories present.

The party would ban executive bonuses if companies commit a serious criminal breach (dumping sewage, for example) and use fines to invest in river restoration. The Tories evidently expect pollution to keep increasing. Forget working on the cause of the problem and preventing “serious criminal breaches” from happening in the first place.

The Labour Party has said it will force water companies to “clean up our rivers” by putting them under “special measures” but does not explain what this means. Like the Conservatives, Labour wants to impose fines on water companies, block the bonuses of executives and improve independent monitoring. Again, Labour offers no further detail on what that would entail.

This is in stark contrast to election campaigns fought under Jeremy Corbyn, when Labour argued for renationalising the water industry.

Both Labour and the Tories propose fines which have proven to be no deterrent. The Environment Agency fined Southern Water – the company that provides water and wastewater services to more than four million people across Hampshire, Sussex and Kent – a record £90 million in 2021, yet illegal sewage discharges by water companies have only increased since then.

Ultimately, fines are a capitulation before the real problem of preventing illegal sewage discharges.

Lib Dems a bit bolder

Banning water companies from dumping raw sewage into rivers and giving them a duty to protect the environment is the goal of the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems want to transform water companies into public benefit companies (but there’s no explanation of how these would differ from their present privatised form) and would ban bonuses for water company executives until rivers are clean (but there’s no definition of “clean”).

Ofwat, the economic regulator for the water industry, would be replaced with a new regulator with powers to prevent sewage dumping. The party also wants a sewage tax on water company profits to enforce existing regulations more effectively, set legally binding targets on the reduction of sewage dumping, create wetlands to stymie flooding and strengthen local authorities monitoring water quality – it’s unclear how this would meld with a “tough new regulator”, though.

Greens are pro-nationalisation

The Green Party wants to bring water services back into public ownership along with Britain’s big five energy companies.

The Greens are the only ones putting numbers to the problem. The party estimates renationalisation would cost £5 billion and investment into water and sewage infrastructure a further £12 billion.

The experiment of privatisation has failed, they argue, and water should be treated as a public good.

Reform’s 50% offer

Reform UK does not mention the sewage scandal directly, but its manifesto proposes bringing 50% of each utility back into public hands. According to the party, this would save £5 billion across all utilities over five years.

Welsh water for Wales

Plaid Cymru wants more public control of Welsh resources, including water.

Lots of water stored in Welsh reservoirs goes to England, especially Birmingham and Liverpool. Plaid Cymru would align legislative competence over water with the geographical boundaries of Wales. In other words, Wales wants to fully take care of its water and improve its quality.

What about Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The SNP does not mention freshwater in its manifesto. Sewage dumping appears to be less common in Scotland, where the water industry is publicly owned. However, reports suggest official estimates are too low.

Northern Ireland’s Sinn Féin does not discuss water in its manifesto. The DUP acknowledges pollution in the UK’s largest inland lake, Lough Neagh, and asks for a concerted effort to preserve its water quality.

Watered down

The smaller parties have my sympathies for bringing forward bolder plans for water management in the UK. Unfortunately, both the Conservatives and Labour are very uninspiring in their hesitance to prevent pollution.

If better regulation, monitoring and enforcement is the most a new UK government will do then this will require a bigger budget for the Environment Agency, at least. Measuring the volume and composition of sewage outflows, not just the duration of pollution events, would also provide more accurate information.

Ofwat, the economic regulator for the water industry, needs reform too. The UK water industry is slow to innovate and misses opportunities to do so. As I have written before, the UK water industry is a small sector with a revolving door that leads former regulators to join the regulated, and vice versa. This creates obvious conflicts of interest and stymies change.

The experience of England and Wales implies that privatised water utilities are a bad idea. Margaret Thatcher believed this model would find admirers globally, but since the late 1980s, no other country has followed suit. In fact, the opposite has tended to happen: after a failed privatisation, Paris returned its water supply services to public hands.

Privatisation has excluded the public from discussing water management in the past 35 years. It is time to reconnect people with the very resource we all need to survive. Capping a CEO’s bonus does not go far enough.




▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 2 July 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Adobe Stock.

The Conversation