Skip to main contentSkip to navigation
A member of Surfers against Sewage holds up a surfboard bearing the words ‘Sick of sewage’
A member of Surfers against Sewage protests against sewage discharges at an overflow pipe on Long Rock Beach in Penzance, Cornwall. Photograph: Emily Whitfield-Wicks/PA
A member of Surfers against Sewage protests against sewage discharges at an overflow pipe on Long Rock Beach in Penzance, Cornwall. Photograph: Emily Whitfield-Wicks/PA

Pledges and apologies will not be enough to clear UK waters of raw sewage

Activists plan to keep holding firms to account as some suggest it is customers who should be compensated

Across the country this weekend campaigners will paddle out on their local rivers or beaches to warn water companies they will not put up with another summer of sewage pollution.

No doubt they will be buoyed up by the high-profile mea culpa trumpeted by privatised water companies on Thursday, along with a promise to treble their existing investment in pipes, water treatment works and water storage to £10bn over the next 10 years.

But if Ruth Kelly, the head of the industry body Water UK and one of the architects of this belated change in direction, thinks it will see off any more of these mass protests, she is likely to be disappointed.

Kelly, who is new to the job, reverted to dubious claims about the Victorians as she promised the new investment. “These are 150-year-old pipes, and sewage systems that need to be upgraded,” she said. The Victorian myth has been used for years by water companies as an excuse not to act because the task was just too great.

In fact pipes, sewage and treatment plants mostly date back to the 1970s and 80s. In the more than three decades since water was privatised, there have been many opportunities to invest the necessary money to keep modernising, but as some water bosses now admit, they have instead overseen decades of underinvestment, while taking huge salaries – in one case £3.9m – and paying dividends to shareholders which last year reached £1.4bn.

Within the puff of the announcement carefully placed in friendly media on Thursday by an industry forced into a change of tack, the crux is stark. It is the customer who will be paying for this trebled investment, which water companies should have been carrying out for years to fulfil their legal duties. And it has always been the customer who pays, as the once publicly owned utility has morphed over the decades into a highly complex, opaque financial instrument set up to maximise returns for investors.

Now the customer will be asked to pay even more if the companies are true to their word and triple their investment. This is despite Ofwat having made clear last year that water companies had all the funding needed to carry out all their legal responsibilities, which are to treat sewage and provide clean water, and did not need to raise bills.

Kelly said on Thursday that by and large the water companies had indeed been carrying out their legal duties; a spin which may be one too far for many of those waxing surfboards and blowing up paddleboards before the mass protest on Saturday.

So far have some water companies been from carrying out their legal duties that six of them are at the centre of a major investigation into suspected illegal activity by Ofwat.

And it was only two years ago that Southern Water was fined a record £90m for illegally dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into protected waters amid a reprimand from the judge for its repeated criminality.

skip past newsletter promotion

The water activist and former Undertones frontman Feargal Sharkey did not have his tongue in his cheek when he suggested on Thursday the water companies should be paying the customers the £10bn in compensation for failing to do their legal duty. And the idea is not so far-fetched, given compensating customers and the environment is built into the regulatory system when companies fail to fulfil their responsibilities.

Behind the grovelling apologies and promises of more money – promises which seem to come once a month as the election looms – there is still a lack of recognition that the public have for years been paying for a service which they did not get. It has taken surfers, swimmers, paddlers and dedicated data detectives such as Prof Peter Hammond to reveal the scale of the water companies’ failures; and with the print still drying on their apology, those guardians of the waters will continue to be watching and holding those responsible to account.

More on this story

More on this story

  • Revealed: warning to ministers over privatised water kept secret since 2002

  • Water companies got England’s sewage-ridden rivers and seas into this mess. Do we really trust them to clean it up?

  • Water companies criticised for passing £10bn sewage bill on to customers

  • Down the drain: how billions of pounds are sucked out of England’s water system

  • English water companies offer apology and £10bn investment for sewage spills

  • Water chiefs not taking their mini bonuses? Hurrah for small mercies

  • Three UK water bosses give up bonuses after anger over sewage

  • Banking firm that owns Southern Water posts record profits

Most viewed

Most viewed