The groundswell of disgust over water firms dumping raw human sewage into England’s rivers and seas has grown into a roiling tsunami threatening to overwhelm the government. By their own confession, water companies say they dumped untreated sewage into English water bodies more than 400,000 times last year, for a total of about 3.1m hours.
As shocking as that seems, you can safely assume this figure grossly underplays the true picture because not all sewage discharges are recorded, and because the sector is allowed to self-report its spills, a practice that begs to be abused.
Take a look at Southern Water, which was fined £90m for repeatedly and deliberately dumping raw sewage into seas along the south coast, while misreporting its performance to the regulator, the Environment Agency. Or you could ask the data scientist who has calculated that Thames Water may not be reporting 95% of its illegal dirty discharges. For its part, Thames Water says it will look carefully at the findings and stresses that it regards all untreated sewage discharges as unacceptable.
So how did we get into this mess?
When water companies’ sewerage infrastructure is overwhelmed by sewage and rainwater, it is dumped into rivers and on to beaches via combined sewer overflow pipes, rather than allowing it to back up and cause flooding. In many cases it’s not illegal because the Environment Agency issues the firms with permits allowing the discharges on condition that it only happens under “exceptional circumstances” when there is heavy rainfall – and only then if the water company is already treating a specified volume of sewage. But companies are dumping with such appalling regularity, and during dry weather, that the term “exceptional” has lost all meaning.
But when called out over the horrific pollution, the sector and the Environment Agency simply point at the creaking infrastructure they inherited from the Victorians, perhaps not realising that in doing so they’re demonstrating just how overdue an upgrade to the system is. It hardly needs saying, but there are around 27 million more people in the UK now than at the end of the Victorian era, so you’d think someone somewhere might have thought about the extra sewerage capacity needed to cope with that.
Apparently not. Since privatisation, the water sector has paid out billions of pounds in dividends and director salaries and bonuses, and although it has invested in water treatment it has not found the cash to stop the rampant pollution. Given that the financial regulator, Ofwat, has not seen fit to force them to end it, can we really blame them? They have fiduciary duty to their shareholders, after all.
I’m kidding: of course we can blame them, but the regulators and successive governments are also at fault. The half-starved Environment Agency, with its budget repeatedly slashed, is reduced to accepting whatever figures the industry supplies to it rather than play the role of fearsome watchdog. By its own admission, aside from the occasional prosecution, it can’t take on polluters with paltry resources, despite the best efforts of its remaining frontline staff.
Meanwhile, the population keeps growing, rainfall intensifies, and all across the country ugly pipes continue to spew their nauseating contents into our waters, choking wildlife and infuriating water users. Fish die, beaches are closed, rivers run rich with effluent.
But things could be about to change – because the water sector’s dirty little secret is now exposed, thanks to the hard graft of campaigners who have refused to stop banging on about it and lockdown-enforced staycations focusing more people’s minds on the state of the UK’s coastlines and rivers.
So what is the government planning to do about it? Initially, not much. But public pressure is a powerful thing and the furore of recent days has embarrassed the government into making a number of changes to the environment bill that is currently making its way through parliament. It is keen to show it is serious about tackling sewage pollution now everyone knows it’s happening.
Over the past few months, the government has been dragged from its position that giving the water firms a stern ticking off was all that was needed, to reluctantly adding amendments to the bill requiring it to make plans to reduce discharges; though these changes are lacking targets or timelines to make the reforms concrete.
More recently, as part of a parliamentary ping-pong, the House of Lords demanded stronger action, adding their own amendment to the bill which would place a duty on “sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows into inland and coastal waters”. In response, the government has said it intends to table its own amendment that would place a direct legal duty on water companies to “progressively reduce the impacts of sewage pollution from storm overflows”.
You’ll notice that “reducing the impacts of sewage pollution” is not the same as saying it will require the sector to stop it entirely. The devil, as always, will be in the detail. The difference this time around is that everyone is watching.