Water supply should be in the public sector in England and Wales

NEWS AND COMMENT: There has been a spate of news media stories about untreated sewage being discharged into the sea against the responsibilities of the privately owned water companies whose job it is to ensure that wastewater does not pollute the environment. This sort of contaminated water can lead to serious illnesses. Sewage pollution is sometimes released into the oceans and into rivers when there is a need to do it under what I believe is “Combined Sewer Overflows” in the UK.

However, a recent increase in sewage contamination of rivers and the oceans appears to be due to a reduction in the number of inspections of water companies’ monitoring of sewage treatment works. The government is obliged to monitor the water companies who in turn are obliged to monitor their sewage treatment works. This is because the government can’t trust the water companies to monitor their sewage treatment facilities properly.

English beach sewage dumps not properly monitored by the Environment Agency
English beach sewage dumps not properly monitored by the Environment Agency. Photo: BBC.

This has been borne out by the fact that during the Covid pandemic and lockdowns, the Environment Agency who organised inspections, decided to reduce their number dramatically to about half the normal number.

The failure in oversight by this government agency appears to have led to an increase in sewage contamination of water discharged into the sea and rivers. The Times reports, “The lack of oversight coincided with a period of water pollution incidents in English rivers that led the Environment Agency to threaten water bosses with jail sentences”.

The Times also reports that “political pressure on water companies to tackle sewage spills is intensifying”. There are plans to increase maximum fines from £250,000 to £250 million.

The fact of the matter is that as soon as Environment Agency monitoring inspections of the water companies fell off, the water companies took advantage of it and started to pollute rivers and the oceans to an unacceptable level.

This indicates not only complacency within the water companies but a cynical approach to minimising pollution. Clearly, minimising pollution cost money and because these companies are commercial enterprises, they want to maximise their profits to allow the directors to maximise their salaries and the shareholders to maximise their dividends.

I am personally compelled to conclude that the supply of water in England and Wales should revert back into the public domain. It should be the government who runs the supply of water to households in England and Wales. This is what happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England water supply has been in the private sector since 1989. It’s been a mistake to give it to businesses. They don’t have the right attitude.

It is time to seek to consider taking the business away from them. Once source at the regulator claimed that they cut back on monitoring inspections because of a lack of resources. This is not explained but it may be because they let go some staff over the Covid pandemic lockdowns. However, in 2022, Environment Agency inspections have recovered to 434 already this year which is similar to earlier years pre-pandemic.

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency (the official excuse for reduced inspections) said: “Site inspections of wastewater treatment works ran at a reduced rate during the pandemic in line with government advice to minimise the risk to staff, water company personnel and the public. This does not mean that regulation decreased.”

No, it doesn’t, but it does mean that the water companies have the wrong attitude, and they are not fit for purpose.

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