A BBC investigation has revealed that three major water companies illegally discharged sewage hundreds of times last year on days when it was not raining.
The fact that releasing sewage into our waters is seen as acceptable in any circumstance is worrying and shows that the privatised water companies are not even following the very relaxed regulations that are in place to protect our rivers and seas from pollution. They have been supported by their Conservative friends who, in October last year, refused to support an amendment to the Environment Bill, which would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to dump the risky sewage into rivers.
Almost all of the UK’s waterways are polluted. In 2022, a House of Commons Committee report on the state of UK rivers concluded that no river in England was free from chemical contamination. Only 14% of UK rivers had a “good” ecological status.
This is despite the fact that water companies made a combined profit of £2.4 billion in the same year, and paid out £1.4 billion in dividends to their shareholders. Many critics have argued that this is a clear example of the problems of a privatised water system, where profit is prioritised over public health and environmental protection.
Chris Packham, a broadcaster and environmentalist, accuses the water companies of “failing to invest in adequate infrastructure and technology to cope with the increasing demand and extreme weather events caused by climate change.”
The water companies argue that it is necessary to discharge during wet weather, otherwise houses would flood with raw sewage. The implication is that unsafe and highly polluted rivers and seas are inevitable and just something those of us living in the UK have to live with.
However, within Europe, the UK’s polluted waterways are seen as an anomaly. Many other countries have reported significant improvements in bathing water quality in recent decades, despite having similar problems with outdated infrastructures. Indeed, bathing is now possible in some capital cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Vienna.
Between 1991 and 2019, the percentage of Europe’s bathing waters with “excellent” water quality increased from 53% to 85%. In several countries, including Austria, Greece, and Malta, more than 95% of bathing sites are now classified as excellent.
There are many other examples where a governmental focus on providing safe water for its citizens is seen not as an aspiration, but essential in managing a resource that is vital for life.
The problem, of course, is that England is the only country in the world with a fully privatised water supply and sewage disposal system owned by equity funds, banks, and billionaires across the world. In fact, a Guardian report revealed: more than 70% of the English water industry is in foreign ownership.
England is even an anomaly within the UK, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland water is a publicly owned utility, whereas in Wales it is run by a not for profit company.
That is not to say that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t have problems with pollution. They do. But there is a focus, and long-term structural plans are in place with a recognition that this is not acceptable.
Whilst it would be nice to think that foreign investors hold the health and enjoyment of the English population dear to their hearts, we all know that this is a fantasy. The reason for their investment is to make as much money in as short a time as possible. When they can’t, as is the case with Thames Water, they run up billions of pounds of debt knowing that the taxpayer has no option but to bail them out.
The recognition that there is incompatibility between profit and the care and protection of this major resource is why even those countries that went down the privatised route have returned either to a fully or partially governmental controlled system.
The evidence is clear. Water privatisation is a failed experiment that is harmful to everyone.
The problem is that there is little hope of things changing. Last year the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, ditched the Labour party’s policy to nationalise water, saying: “Within our fiscal rules, to be spending billions of pounds on nationalising things doesn’t stack up”.
As Clive Lewis pointed out: “We are facing an existential crisis, and I am afraid it is not just: will people have enough water to water their gardens? It is, will we have water to grow the crops? This cannot be solved by having shareholders and dividends as a priority. This is beyond an ideological fight between public good and private bad. The public understands that something needs to change. Labour should get on the front foot and show it has the best interests of the British people at heart.”
We can but hope.