The Speaker
Sunday, 19 May 2024 – 19:10

Changing the tide on the UK’s polluted waterways: the need for long-term planning

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

The alarm has already been raised on the UK’s contaminated water systems. In 2022, just 14% of England’s rivers were in a “good” ecological state. If you were swimming in conservation sites like the Brecon Beacons and the Lake District in 2022, there’s a chance you were bathing in free-flowing sewage, which poured into these areas for 30,000 hours last year. The main culprits for this are known to be agricultural businesses, and water companies themselves – who wilfully deposit sewage to prevent backlogs in inhabited areas. Since privatisation in 1989, the latter group have amassed £60.6 billion in debt, with hefty dividends to shareholders. There has been widespread outrage amongst local surfers, swimmers, and the general public, but a long-term solution remains to be seen.

Conservative rhetoric on the topic has been little more than that, with the government attempting to rollback measures which limit water pollution in the housebuilding sector. This proposal suffered an embarrassing defeat in the House of Lords, as the Tories once again sided with private interests over public health. Tory MPs have attempted to defend the move, arguing that critics are anti-home ownership, apparently suggesting that local communities need to choose between housebuilding and clean water. Earlier in the year, the Conservatives likewise voted through legislation to permit continued pollution by water companies until 2038. Incumbent policy so far has been, at best, to cut corners, and at worst, to knowingly corrupt an already broken system.

With a general election looming, the soft launch of Labour’s campaign has been criticised for its veiled commitments and lack of concrete policymaking. The line has similarly been (faintly) drawn when it comes to water regulation. But can it solve the problem of the UK’s leaky waterworks, or are we better off petitioning BRITA to step up their game?

In May, Labour announced proposals to form a new water regulator by merging the Environmental Agency, Ofwat and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Detail on the plan was lacking again in the recent party conference, but it is hardly surprising that Labour’s current plans lie in stark contrast to the previous leadership’s re-nationalisation campaign, as Jeremy Corbyn remains ousted and politically homeless. What remains a mystery is exactly how this fusion of public agencies will help them curtail pollution across the UK.

Maybe information sharing across the pollution and financial bodies respectively will lead to better oversight on corporate behaviour. Nonetheless, the issues of self-monitoring and a spiralling debt crisis remain unresolved. The Environmental Agency is supposed to audit company records annually for accurate reporting on pollution levels. As of 2023, 36% of these audit reports were unavailable. At the same time, the £60 billion of debt taken on by water companies translates to a 20% premium on the individual’s water bill.

At a party conference event last week, the Shadow Environmental Secretary toed the laconic party line, vowing to “give Ofwat the powers to ban the payment of bonuses to water bosses until they have cleared up their filth”. CEOs of Yorkshire Water, Thames Water Southern Water, Welsh Water and South West Water voluntarily gave up their bonuses in the last financial year. Additional special measures include criminal liability for persistent polluters and forced surveillance of water points. If these steps are going to be a meaningful deterrent, the Opposition should be prepared for the eventuality that companies, crippled by their impact, need to be brought under some form of administration. Otherwise, the UK’s waters will be condemned to the status quo, already compounded by 15 years of Tory inaction.

In apparent deviation from the party’s radio silence, Labour MP Dan Jarvis has outlined the need for a long-term plan in fixing the country’s water systems and the resulting inevitability of re-nationalisation. This sentiment is echoed by the public, with recent polls showing 69% are pro-nationalisation. Without plans to bring them back under government ownership, Keir Starmer is seemingly on the right of the public.

Whilst re-nationalisation is no small feat, aversion to the policy solution purely to avoid being marred by the Corbynista brush may be cutting off one’s nose to spite your face. At the very least, the two-term plan which Keir Starmer is rumoured to be pursuing should take into consideration that actually getting water companies to stop cost-cutting exercises or turning profits at the expense of consumers may nudge them closer to government ownership.

With a persistent lead in the polls, Labour’s water policy should be, above all else, specific. Tighter regulation and increased penalties need to be accompanied by conditions that limit their effects to investors, not consumers. Labour need to find the right pressure point – to affect change in the companies’ behaviour and restrict them from passing any burdens, financial or otherwise, to the consumer. With an ownership concentrated in foreign governments and pension funds and historic accusations of asset-stripping, policies with loopholes or any dependency on the good faith of water companies are unlikely to cut the mustard.

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