ALEX BRUMMER: Britain is drowning in a wave of sewage

ALEX BRUMMER: We should jail water company bosses if they keep drowning Britain under this tidal wave of sewage

Britain is being utterly drenched in pollution. Our streams, rivers and oceans are treated as open sewers by giant water companies, which pour torrents of human waste into them year after year.

In 2021 alone, there were 375,000 untreated sewage spills into rivers: a mountain of filth threatening our natural beauty and delicate ecosystems.

It is a scandal that infuriates people everywhere. Data reveals the nine biggest water companies — including Thames Water, United Utilities and Severn Trent — received some 2,800 written warnings and ‘enforcement actions’ in the past seven years from the Environment Agency.

Has it made a difference? Hardly. Britain has some of Europe’s lowest water quality.

Clearly, the Government needs to take a firm stand. Yet there is little sign of the requisite urgency.

 ALEX BRUMMER: In 2021 alone, there were 375,000 untreated sewage spills into rivers 


This week, the Mail reported that Environment Secretary Therese Coffey intends to roll back on plans that would have seen water firms fined up to £250 million for persistent sewage spills. She is said to see this as ‘disproportionate’.

The current maximum fine is just £250,000 — a paltry sum when Thames Water, to name just one, has annual revenues of almost £2.2 billion per year.

Many readers will remember when British travellers to the Continent were advised to drink only bottled water. Now foreign tourists are greeted with ‘Don’t Swim’ signs on our sewage-lashed beaches.

How has it all gone so badly wrong? When regional water companies in England and Wales were privatised in 1989 — in one of the last acts of Margaret Thatcher’s free-market government — it was meant to be an opportunity for UK private investors, pension and other investment funds to have a direct stake in how the formerly municipally owned firms were run.

The idea was that the proverbial ‘invisible hand’ of the market would bring efficiency and competitiveness, driving down prices and improving services. In this brave new vision, privatisation would herald new investment in reliable pipes and pumping systems, plus clean up rivers and coasts and ensure safe sewage disposal.

None of it has worked as intended. Regulator Ofwat has failed to ensure sufficient investment in the system.

Consumers are still being ripped off, leaks are not swiftly repaired and modern infrastructure is yet to be installed. Drought orders persist on our famously rain-lashed island. Swimmers, rowers and anglers often cannot enjoy their hobbies without dealing with sewage bobbing about them.

If ever government needed to show some bottle, it is in dealing with the water giants.

Rapacious: If ever government needed to show some bottle, it is in dealing with the water giants (Pictured: Lake Windemere in the Lake District, 2022)

Yet ministers in Rishi Sunak’s ultra-cautious administration fear aggravating the polluters. The Prime Minister talks a fairly strong game, calling sewage spills ‘appalling’. But he does not match words with action.

All this is offering Labour an open goal, with shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon telling voters, more or less unchallenged: ‘The Tories have turned their backs on you — they’ve allowed the places you care about to become an open sewer.’

The truth is more nuanced. Of course the Government cares about this politically damaging problem.

But Ms Coffey fears that by making sworn enemies of the water giants, she could deter them from making the badly needed investment to clean up the waterways. If they do not pay, the burden will fall on already squeezed taxpayers.

Nevertheless, she needs to do a lot more — and fast.

The truth is rapacious overseas owners are destroying the Thatcherite ideal. An obsession with short-term profits means that cash returns for these, in the shape of dividends — together with fat-cat pay for those at the top — have made Britain’s water industry a honeypot.

Successive governments, Labour and Tory, sat on their hands as vultures descended on the industry, buying out private investors and domestic pension funds.

A recent investigation found an astounding 72 per cent of the English water industry is controlled by outfits in 17 countries. Even the share-ownership registers of these — including Severn Trent and United Utilities — are dominated by overseas investors.

Leaky: Thames Water boss Sarah Bentley earned a tasty £2 million in 2021 alone 

Of course, these distant owners do not share our passion for the cleanliness of our waterways or the plants and animals that live in and near them.

One newly installed chief executive at a foreign-owned water firm admitted to us recently that repairing the damage of past under-investment was an eight-to-ten year job, at least.

A major investigation by this paper and The Mail on Sunday revealed the UK has allowed its water industry to be run from overseas. Decisions affecting millions of British households are made in North America, Asia, the Middle East and Australia.


Our probe found that in 2022 alone, some £3 billion of dividends — paid for out of ordinary Britons’ pockets — had been funnelled into the bank accounts of investors, many of whom were overseas. This could have been used to fix the litany of problems identified by the Environment Agency.

Among those owners are investment funds in China, Abu Dhabi and Malaysia. Almost 9 per cent of Thames Water, Britain’s biggest water firm, was sold to the China Investment Corporation, a direct arm of the Beijing government, in 2012.

This was after the helpful intervention of then Chancellor George Osborne, who saw it as critical in building warm relations with the communists in the Far East.

Some £100 million in dividends, which could have been used to repair London’s notoriously leaky pipes, were paid to Beijing instead.

Thames fell into the hands of a consortium including the Abu Dhabi investment fund. (For the moment, as it refocuses on fixing the mistakes of the past, dividends have dried up.)

In effect, the international super-rich have harnessed virtually guaranteed cash flows from British households.

And running a water firm can be very rewarding, too. Thames Water boss, mother-of-five Sarah Bentley, earned a tasty £2 million in 2021 alone.

The former chief executive of Yorkshire Water, Liz Barber, amassed £1.4 million — even though the company she was running was fined £1.6 million for 25 unauthorised spills on a watercourse near Bradford.

 Filth: At this stage, there is probably no turning back from the current ownership structure


Liv Garfield at Severn Trent collected a whopping £3.9 million in spite of the firm being fined £1.5 million for illegally dumping sewage into Worcestershire watercourses.

Similar rewards are in evidence at other water giants. If these were doing a brilliant job, few would begrudge these executives eye-catching pay. But when our rivers are flooded with filth, when leaks are endemic, when we have hosepipe bans even though it rains so much, and when prices keep going up — it’s rather hard to tolerate.

At this stage, there is probably no turning back from the current ownership structure. Renationalisation is certainly not on the cards.

It is critical, however, that the industry is made to operate in the best interests of customers, the broader public and the environment.

If that means swingeing fines — yes, at least up to £250 million — which would force the companies into less grasping ownership, then so be it.

Nor should the Government steer clear of launching criminal prosecutions against negligent officials, farmers and others who knowingly breach environmental standards. The prospect of a prison sentence would sharpen the mind of any water boss.

It’s a challenge, yes — but one the Government must not duck. Or this rising tide of pollution will sink us all.

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