This edition of Snouts in the Trough is not just about greed and corruption, it is about how excessive levels of profits made by individuals and companies, often based abroad, are putting our health at serious risk of harm. The most recent and serious example involves residents, including young children, in the areas of Brixham and Paignton in South West Devon, becoming very sick from drinking contaminated water from their taps.

South West Water was finally forced to admit that this was as a result of a tiny organism, Cryptosporidium, that, according to CEO Susan Davy mysteriously found its way into the water supply. It is not a minor issue. The organism is found in human and animal faeces. It causes prolonged diarrhoea, and there is no effective treatment. Professor Paul Hunter, a specialist in microbiology and infectious diseases from the University of East Anglia, says most people recover after a couple of weeks but it can be deadly for a small number of people with weakened immune systems.

There is evidence that there was a problem weeks before South West Water admitted they were responsible. Comments online describe residents’ anger and frustration at becoming the victims of yet another serious safety failure from South West Water . One woman described how her son, who attends a special needs school, has been ill for weeks.  He returned to school only to become reinfected before SW Water acknowledged responsibility.

The problem is that it is not only the drinking water that is being infected by the serious neglect of the water supply. The seas in Exmouth, Plymouth and the Torbay areas of Devon have been deemed unsafe on numerous occasions due to the excessive discharges of sewage.  Some of these incidents occurred at the height of the tourist season in August, 2023.  In fact, in 2023, The EndsReport stated that South West Water reported over 58,000 sewage spills.

Like other water companies in the UK, South West Water is more interested in the dividends it pays to its shareholders than in protecting the health and wellbeing of its customers. The water company managed to pay its investors £112 million in dividends. Ms Davy, the CEO is paid a base salary of around £460,000, and, despite overseeing catastrophic failures in terms of the quality of the water, still received a bonus in the region of £450,000.

South West Water is not alone.  Rivers in the north of England are bearing the brunt of the sewage pollution crisis. Analysis by the Guardian reveals that the region’s waters are experiencing the highest rates of waste discharge in the country. Discharges of untreated sewage by water companies doubled from 1.8 million hours in 2022 to a record 3.6 million in 2023 according to new Environmental Agency data.

The Conservatives have responded by saying they will continue to prosecute the companies who wilfully decide to dump raw sewage into the sea. But this is not proving to be a deterrent. South West Water was fined £2.15m in April 2023 for dumping raw sewage, but they still managed to increase the dividends paid to their shareholders by 10% since last year.

The only solution of course is re-nationalisation and democratic control. The privatisation of our utilities has, as predicted, been an unmitigated disaster. None more so than water. There isn’t a country in the world that has privatised its water supply in this way.

The problem is that Labour, having initially said that they would be re-nationalising water are backtracking, saying that the costs will be astronomical. However, the University of Greenwich argues that the total cost would be in the region of £14.7 billion less than 2 per cent of tax receipts. It wouldn’t do Labour any harm to remember that, since the water companies were privatised in 1991, the payouts in dividends to shareholders amounts to £5 billion, nearly half the sum they spent on maintaining and improving the country’s pipes and treatment plants in that period. Analysis by the University of Greenwich showed that 20% of our water bills are going to shareholders.

At the same time post-Brexit rules have weakened regulations on air pollution, water quality, pesticides, and agricultural emissions.

The focus is all on enabling companies to make bigger profits. They, of course, won’t bear the social costs.

Meanwhile, that confidence we always had in the UK that our tap water was safe to drink and our seas and rivers were unpolluted has been eroded.

With the reckless and uncontrolled leaking and dumping of sewage into our water, it is likely that the situation in South Devon will be replicated across the UK.

It cannot be allowed to continue. This is not just a political imperative. It will soon become a health emergency.


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