Is the UK government underestimating public outrage on sewage spills?

Ministers' plan to clean up the UK’s water sector shows some promise, but there is good reason to doubt its, and the industry’s, commitment to reform.

When the government announced its Integrated Plan for Water earlier this month, we kept an open mind. Despite criticism that many of the measures included in the plan were simply a rehash of past commitments – such as banning plastic wet wipes – there are some new and encouraging measures.

One example is potentially making a licence change that would link dividend payouts and executive pay to water companies’ performance. Another is the Environment Agency, which regulates the water sector alongside Ofwat, receiving an additional £2.2 million ($2.7 million; €2.5 million) to its annual enforcement budget.

There is also the option the government is considering of allowing the EA to charge polluters unlimited civil penalties. We’re sceptical of that – not because we don’t think polluters should pay a hefty fine but because EA and Ofwat can already impose fines but seldom do so. According to a recent Financial Times report, in the 30 years since the passage of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Regulations, Ofwat has fined just one company – Southern Water – £126 million in 2019, for breaching the 1994 rules.

EA chair Alan Lovell has already spoken out against not only unlimited penalties but even against increasing the fines his agency can charge from £25,000 to £250 million, which is being considered by the government. For serious offences, he prefers prosecution. Nonetheless, he did express support for the plan, which is not yet final, saying: “We must take full advantage of the current public interest to deliver a truly national effort to protect water.”

He’s right: it’s public pressure – through past lawsuits, social media, and leading national newspapers – that has led the government and the industry’s two regulators to take action against water companies dumping untreated sewage into the country’s rivers and coastal areas. Unfortunately, we’re not entirely convinced the government has its finger on the public pulse. Because while it touts its Plan for Water, it is simultaneously engaged in a review of the Environmental Information Regulations – which give the public the ‘right to know’ about water company pollution – that could lead to its repeal, under the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill 2022.

Part of the reason the country’s sewer network is in such a state is because of years of underinvestment. Built roughly 100 years ago, it has not been upgraded in order to deal with the growth in population and climate change. Privatisation of the sector is often accused of being the culprit. The hefty compensation and bonuses executives have walked away with, despite their companies performing badly, have certainly fuelled those claims. Someone is clearly failing at their job when 301,091 sewage spills in 2022 are an improvement compared with 2021, “largely due to last year’s below average rainfall”, by the government’s own admission.

But the government and regulators also bear a significant portion of the blame, not only for focusing on keeping customer bills low at the expense of investment, but also for failing to keep water companies in line.

That brings us back to the potential repeal of the Environmental Information Regulations, which, we would argue, is neither in the government’s nor the water companies’ interest.

First, because there can’t be accountability without disclosure – the UK water industry has serious issues that can only be addressed with a full and transparent engagement between the public and private sector. Second, because the public and private sector failing to clean up their act – figuratively and literally – might result in not just sewers, but public outrage overflowing. And that can have a spillover effect – at the polls and in regulatory changes.