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

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

After decades of pollution, chronic underinvestment and presiding over a fundamentally broken water system, water companies in England have finally apologised for the disgraceful state they have left our rivers and seas in and promised to change. But how on earth can we trust them?

Of course, we welcome the industry finally taking responsibility and any additional investment to fix our broken system, but the money may prove too little and the apology too late. These companies have had ample opportunity to put things right and invest in their infrastructure. Meanwhile, surfers, swimmers and paddleboarders, from St Agnes to St Andrews, have been paying the price, risking becoming sick by simply entering the water.

Looking at the detail of the announcement, it all becomes pretty farcical, pretty quickly. Their apology and subsequent plan is built upon the assumption that ultimately they can get customers to foot much of the cost of the planned £10bn investment through unspecified increases in their bills. This is unacceptable on so many levels. We, the customers, have already paid for the water companies to do their job and deal with our waste. We should not have to do so again, especially in the middle of a cost of living crisis.

And it’s clear that water companies have the funds to pay for this investment themselves if they weren’t so focused on lining shareholders’ and executives’ pockets. Last year alone, companies rewarded their chief executives with £16.5m and paid out £965m to shareholders in dividends. We understand that water companies need to attract investment and talent to these complex jobs, but if they are not complying with their basic legal requirements to treat sewage effectively then nobody deserves to be rewarded.

It’s not yet clear whether the £10bn being announced today is enough to restore all of our rivers and seas to good health and keep waters safe. But what we do know is that priority must be given immediately to tackling those overflows that cause the most harm to people and the environment, so that we can end sewage pollution into bathing waters and high-priority nature sites by 2030. Water UK says the plans by water companies in England will cut the number of overflow incidents by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared with 2020.

We recognise that water companies have committed to increase transparency and make sewage spill data more available to the public, but yet again this doesn’t appear to be a gesture made in good faith. It’s a legal obligation placed on them by a government that is starting to panic in the face of the sewage scandal.

When the UK entered the EU we were nicknamed the “dirty man of Europe”. Tough regulation and enforcement helped change that narrative, but the sewage scandal, and our government and regulators’ inability to properly hold the polluting water industry to account, has brought that shameful name back.

We demand urgent change now. We are calling for a cap on CEO bonuses and an end to shareholder pay-outs, unless water companies comply with environmental regulations. And we want regulators to properly enforce the law and hold water companies to account.We have had enough of the PR exercises that water users across the UK are now wise to. Thousands have signed our petition to end profiteering from pollution, and communities up and down the country are primed and ready to paddle out to show their frustration at the sewage scandal in our mass paddle-outs this Saturday. If today’s apology is going to be a turning point in the journey to end sewage pollution, and reset the industry’s relationship with the public, it must be backed up by sustained investment, with the money coming from industry itself. Action, not just words, is what is required.

The past few decades appear to show that if we give these water companies an inch, they will take a mile, so we can’t be distracted by their pledges to change. Campaigners across the UK will keep up the fight until we end sewage pollution, and we need the government and regulators to uphold their side of the bargain, and hold this industry to account.

We won’t be fooled by smoke and mirrors. We will continue to demand better for our rivers, seas, people and planet until we end sewage pollution for good.

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