Sewage spills: Water bills to rise to pay for £10bn upgrade

Sewage spills: Water bills to rise to pay for £10bn upgrade

Bills could rise after water providers in England said they were willing to spend £10bn to tackle sewage spills.

Private companies have apologized for the amount of polluted water being dumped into rivers and seas, amid growing public anger over the practice.

Some activists have greeted the move with caution, but others say the companies are passing the cost on to bill payers.

The industry paid out £1.4bn to shareholders in 2022.

Musician and environmental activist Feargal Sharkey called it a “half-apology” that was another attempt to extract more money from customers.

“What I’m actually hearing is not an apology for the fact that we’ve paid them for a service we don’t have, now they’re suggesting that we pay them a second time for a service we haven’t had,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Program. from today.

“We should apologize for the suggestion that they are going to raise bills by £10bn because of their incompetence and greed. This is nothing to celebrate.”

Companies are sometimes allowed to dump sewage into open water after heavy rain to prevent the system from overloading and backing up in people’s homes.

But activists have long said that these spills happen all too often. In 2022, raw sewage was discharged into rivers and seas for 1.75 million hours, or 825 times a day on average.

Water UK, the body representing England’s nine water and sewerage companies, apologized on behalf of the industry for not “acting fast enough”.

Ruth Kelly, president of the organisation, told BBC News: “We are sorry for the upset and anger that there have been spills of raw sewage onto beaches and rivers in recent years.

“We’re sorry we didn’t act sooner, but we understand.”

Environment Agency chairman Alan Lovell welcomed the companies’ apology but said he wanted “to see action and a clear plan for delivery.”

The companies said on Thursday they were willing to spend £10bn raised from investors to tackle the problem, but conceded that customers could see a “modest” increase in bills as companies looked to recoup costs over time. .

Water regulator Ofwat said on Thursday it would review the pledge to assess what impact it might have on consumers before spending begins.

There are many ways water companies can spend money to reduce wastewater spills, including:

  • Increase the capacity of the sewage system
  • Separation of rainwater and wastewater.
  • Install natural systems such as planting trees that absorb water.

But water companies have come under significant criticism for suggesting that bills could be increased to pay for this investment while still paying out profits to shareholders.

Downing Street has said that water companies should put “consumers before profits”.

The prime minister’s deputy official spokesman said the water companies’ apology was welcome, but acknowledged more needed to be done.

“And we’ve been clear throughout that we don’t want things to disproportionately affect customer bills, especially since we know there are people all over the country who are struggling with the cost of living, which is why we provide the help that we have in that area.”

It is not yet known how much the bills could rise with the new investment, as Ofwat will not make a decision until the end of 2024 on spending plans.

Marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) welcomed “the long-awaited apology” but said the investment should not be paid for by higher bills.

“The UK public has already paid for the environmental protection of wastewater, but we haven’t seen it yet. And while the water industry does collect it, this investment promised by Water UK must come from the profits of the water company. water, not the bill payer. said Izzy Ross, campaign manager for SAS.

The chairman of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Conservative MP Philip Dunne, told the BBC he expected Ofwat to approve the investment plan.

“The water and sewerage sector is vigilant and has provided a promising plan to address poor water quality and take vital steps to improve the country’s aging sewerage infrastructure,” it said.

Jim McMahon MP, the Labor Party’s shadow environment secretary, said the government was partly to blame for the situation.

“Thirteen years of failed Tory rule have left a broken system, capped by a terrible record of inaction. The Conservatives are the problem, not the solution,” he said.

This sentiment was supported by Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey. “The only apology missing here is from the Secretary of the Environment,” he said. “This Conservative government has been pathetic in stopping the discharge of sewage into the rivers.”

The Green Party called for the water and sewage companies to return to public ownership.

Water UK said the companies have also pledged to reduce spillage by up to 35% by 2030 and share real-time data on how often wastewater is spilled into rivers and seas.

But this is not a new commitment, since the government announced last month, data sharing would be a legal requirement for water companies by 2025.

Water UK also said companies would reduce the number of sewage spills by up to 140,000, compared to 2020 when there were more than 400,000 spills.

Environmental campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp) said the pledge is “nonsense” unless the volume of spillage is also reduced. Currently, water companies are only required to monitor if a spill is taking place, not how much is being released.

Wasp’s Peter Hammond told Radio 4’s Today programme: “All they promise is to reduce the amount of spillage, we still don’t know if it’s drops or tsunamis of sewage going into the river(s).”

Water and sewerage services in the UK are decentralized and in Scotland and Northern Ireland they are provided by government run companies, in Wales they are not for profit. They have their own action plans to deal with sewage spills which are not included in the Water UK announcement.

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