English water companies offer apology and £10bn investment for sewage spillsUnder-fire bosses announce ‘unprecedented plan’ to reduce last year’s 300,000 incidents of sewage pollution
Water companies in England have apologised for repeated sewage spills and pledged to invest £10bn this decade in an attempt to quell public anger over pollution in seas and rivers.
The companies will triple their existing investment plans to plough funds into the biggest modernisation of sewers “since the Victorian era” to reduce spills of overflowing sewage into England’s waterways.
Industry body Water UK said the plans will cut the number of overflow incidents by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared with 2020.
Environment Agency figures earlier this year showed there were a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day.
The spending on more than 350,000 miles of sewer comes on top of the current £3.1bn being spent between 2020 and 2025.
Shareholders in water companies will initially fund the investments. However, the costs will be recouped from customers through unspecified increases in their bills determined by regulators, in a move which threatens to add further pressure to household costs.
The investment will see new facilities built to hold surges in rainwater, increased capacity for sewage treatment works, measures to reduce rainfall entering sewers and fixing misconnected pipes from properties.
An online hub will launch next year, giving the public almost live information on overflows and the state of rivers and coastal waters. The companies also pledged to support up to 100 communities in creating new protected water for swimming.
The move comes after intense criticism of water companies from politicians and campaigners.
Water UK, which represents 25 companies across the UK, issued an apology on behalf of its English companies and said the public was “right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches”.
There have been calls for greater fines for breaching environmental laws and The Environment Agency has even suggested that water company bosses should be jailed for serious pollution.
Ruth Kelly, the chair of Water UK, said: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry. More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.
“We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”
Privatised water and sewage companies in the UK paid £1.4bn in dividends in 2022, up from £540m the previous year. Annual bonuses paid to water company executives rose by 20% in 2021, as water bosses paid themselves £24.8m, including £14.7m in bonuses, benefits and incentives, in 2021-2022.
Last week the chief executives of Yorkshire Water and Thames Water and owner of South West Water declined their bonuses in an acknowledgment of the public anger over companies’ dumping of sewage in Britain’s rivers.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, said: “This apology and plan just don’t go far enough. For years water companies have arrogantly dismissed the public’s fears of rivers, lakes and coastlines being damaged by sewage discharges.
“This announcement does nothing to match the billions water firms have paid out in dividends to overseas investors, or stop their CEOs being handed multimillion pound bonuses.”
Davey also called on the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, to apologise.
In a letter apologising to its customers, Yorkshire Water said it is investing £180m in reducing discharges from storm overflows over the next two years.
Its chief executive, Nicola Shaw, said: “Tackling overflows, which were designed into the system as a relief valve, is a priority for us, but it is also a significant task … further investment from our shareholders is helping us tackle this issue.”
Last month, Coffey said the government would introduce legislation to put plans to reduce storm overflows on a “new legal footing”.
Stuart Singleton-White, head of campaigns at the Angling Trust, said, “This must be only the beginning. The problems our rivers face will not be solved by sorting out overflow spills, chucking in some money for swimming, and putting nature-based solutions on the end of pipes.”
A spokesperson for Ofwat, the water regulator, said: “We welcome the apology from water companies and this now needs to be turned into action.
“We have been pushing water companies to do more, faster, for their customers and for our waterways and beaches. We look forward to seeing the plans and how companies will step up performance.”
This article was amended on 18 May 2023. An earlier version referred in the headline to UK water companies, when the apology is from English water companies.https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/may/18/uk-water-companies-offer-apology-and-10bn-investment-for-sewage-spills?utm_term=64661599d048a185b5629f8d439cc18b&utm_campaign=DownToEarth&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=greenlight_email