UK

Water firms pump a fifth less cash into sewage works despite leaks and rising bills, new data shows 

Water firms pump a fifth less cash into sewage works despite leaks and rising bills, new data shows

  • Critics say water companies are dumping sewage rivers instead of processing it
  • They claim this is because companies failed to investment in treatment works
  • Figures show water companies slashed investment by a fifth in the last 30 years 


Water companies have slashed their investment in sewage works by a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised, figures show.

The chronic under-investment comes despite water bills rising 31 per cent and the £72billion paid in dividends to investors over the same period.

The claims come as the firms are under attack for dumping sewage into rivers instead of processing it – which critics say is because they have failed to adequately invest in treatment works.

Water companies are now facing a wave of anger – which includes customers withholding bills in protest at the repeated dumping of sewage in rivers and seas.

The analysis is of investment following privatisation in 1989. And it shows that cash put into waste water and sewage networks fell by almost a fifth – 17 per cent – from £2.9billion in the 1990s to £2.4billion, based on data from regulator Ofwat and the campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution.

Water companies have slashed investment in sewage works by a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised. Pictured: Stock image of Environment worker treating the River Trent at Yoxall after it was contaminated with untreated sewage and cyanide in October 2009

Water bills have risen by 31 per cent in real terms since the 1990s and £72billion has been paid out in dividend payments to parent companies and investors, including private equity, sovereign wealth and pension funds.

Ashley Smith, founder of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, said the data showed some parts of the water industry had ‘become heavily reliant on being able to get away with illegal sewage dumping to prop up under-investment in its infrastructure’. 

And Martin Salter, of the Angling Trust and the former MP for Reading West, said: ‘There has been a huge increase in housebuilding and in population – we’ve built more houses and schools but do we upgrade our sewage treatment works to cope? No, it always ends up in the river.’

Julie Wassmer, a crime novelist, has withheld paying her bill from Southern Water over its repeated sewage dumping on the Kent coast, for which the firm has been fined.

In a letter posted online that explained her actions, she said: ‘It cannot be right for criminal activity to be rewarded, for families to have been forced from beaches and out of the sea, for residents to have had to sweep sewage from a footbridge so that local children do not have to tread in excrement on their way to school.’

The country¿s rivers are in a poor condition. In 2019, only 16 per cent of England¿s rivers and seas met the minimum ¿good or better¿ status, according to official Environment Agency figures. Pictured: Sewage on the Jubilee River was reported to Thames Water in May 2020

The country’s rivers are in a poor condition. In 2019, only 16 per cent of England’s rivers and seas met the minimum ‘good or better’ status, according to official Environment Agency figures. Pictured: Sewage on the Jubilee River was reported to Thames Water in May 2020

She attacked the company and its shareholders for continuing ‘to make huge profits from all this, claiming high salaries and paying dividends to shareholders in the process’.

She added: ‘I am therefore exercising my consumer rights by withholding payment to Southern Water.’

The country’s rivers are in a poor condition. In 2019, only 16 per cent of England’s rivers and seas met the minimum ‘good or better’ status, according to official Environment Agency figures.

Water UK, which represents the companies, said: ‘The water industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, with tight controls on company activity, including on the amount companies are permitted to invest each year.

‘We are pushing the Government to encourage the economic regulator, Ofwat, to authorise schemes that meet the Government’s environment targets.’

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