An absolutely damning report from the Environment Agency was published last week, calling the performance of England’s water and sewerage companies, “the worst we have seen for years”.
The report judges each company against a range of criteria including total pollution incidents (sewerage assets), serious pollution incidents (sewerage and water supply assets) and self-reporting of pollution incidents (sewerage and water supply assets).
It doesn’t pull its punches. Here’s the opening paragraph.
“The sector’s performance on pollution was shocking, much worse than previous years. Serious pollution incidents increased to 62, the highest total since 2013. There were 8 of the most serious incidents, compared with 3 in 2020 and most companies, 7 of the 9, were responsible for an increase in serious incidents compared to 2020.”
It was unequivocal too in its view of those running these companies.
“Company directors let this occur and it is simply unacceptable … the public have seen water company executives and investors rewarded handsomely while the environment pays the price. The water companies are behaving like this for a simple reason: because they can. We intend to make it too painful for them to continue … Repeat offenders can now expect criminal prosecutions for less serious environmental incidents … We would like to see prison sentences for Chief Executives and Board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents. We would also like to see company directors being struck off.”
This will be uncomfortable reading for executives, but it should also concern anyone who cares about drinking clean water or protecting our fragile environment.
We take a closer look at two of the water companies supplying people in the Central Bylines area.
The main Anglian Water area stretches from Grimsby in North East Lincolnshire as far as Essex and from Daventry in Northamptonshire to Great Yarmouth in the east. It supplies seven million customers (including, strangely, some in Hartlepool).
Its performance is rated two out of four stars meaning, in the words of the agency’s chair Emma Howard Boyd, it requires “significant improvement”. Some 14 of the 62 serious pollution incidents recorded by the agency were in the Anglian Water area. It was one of six water companies given a red EPA (environmental performance assessment) rating because it performed significantly below target (there are nine companies in total). These criticisms are borne out by data from their annual report for 2022, showing there were 34 pollution incidents caused by sewage discharges per 10,000km of pipeline. This was substantially above the target of 24 incidents per 10,000km of pipe and brought them a £4.5mn fine.
It wasn’t hard to find examples of the adverse effects of pollution. In Lincolnshire, which likes to boast about its blue flag beaches, a number of people were taken ill this July after a charity raft-racing event near Boston. Last November, swimmers and paddle boarders reported increased amounts of sewage in the water off Cleethorpes Beach, resulting in blue flag status not being awarded (in all probability because of the amount of sewage discharge occurring). At the southern end of the Anglian region, the company was heavily fined in June of this year for an effluent discharge that killed 5,000 fish.
This situation may not improve. A recent investigation by the Financial Times’ property correspondent found tensions developing in Norfolk (and likely to be repeated everywhere) as housebuilders realise that efforts to improve water quality are at odds with the government’s housing ambitions. It would be no surprise to find politicians taking the side of the builders here, leaving water companies to sort out the mess (literally).
Anglian Water does seem to be having some success in reducing the amount of water lost to leaks. It reports a reduction of 6% on the three-year average leakage rates target set by Ofwat, but nonetheless is losing 182 million litres of clean water per day. We leave readers to form their own opinions of this. You can read more about Anglian Water’s record here.
We asked the company about the criticisms they had received in the report and they were prompt with a reply.
“We’re extremely disappointed to have dropped to a two-star rating last year. This rating reflects a challenging year, especially given the extreme rainfall and widespread flooding we saw at the start of 2021. We learned a lot at the time, and while the impact was too significant for us to recover in 2021, we’ve significantly changed how we work since. Already in the first six months of this year we’ve seen a reduction in pollution incidents, and an improvement in our operational performance.
“Our focus on protecting the environment remains resolute – we’re ahead of schedule delivering our £800 million programme of investment to benefit the environment. We know there’s no room for complacency, and we’re absolutely determined to make meaningful progress towards achieving our zero pollutions goal.“
While this sounds good, it is a little short on detail about changes they have made and plan to make. We will be following their progress with interest.
Severn Trent Water
Severn Trent Water covers an area from the River Humber to the Welsh border and as far south as Gloucester. It comes off better in the recent report than do many of the other companies. However, while they have maintained their four star EPA status, Severn Trent was the one company that suffered a serious pollution incident last year.
High Peak in Derbyshire is an area known for its outstanding natural beauty. Most people who live there are keen walkers, climbers, cyclists – and wild swimmers. Four star rating or no four star rating, the amount of sewage the company discharges into the area’s rivers is enough to stop the most ardent swimmer from donning their wetsuit.
For example, according to the Rivers Trust, the River Noe at Edale received sewage discharge from the nearby treatment works for a total 1,501 hours in 2021. But even that was beaten by Bradwell Brook near Castleton. The brook, which runs right through the middle of the village of Bradwell, received sewage discharge for 2,372 hours.
Over in Shropshire meanwhile, dumping sludge in the River Severn last November drove local residents to protest.
Their record on leaks is also not much to shout about. In the last year, Severn Trent has lost 410 million litres of clean drinking water every single day because of leaks that have not been repaired. Compare that to an ordinary person who uses, on average, 150 litres of water a day. Asking your customers to turn off the tap when toothbrushing starts to sound like mockery.
Members of the public feel keenly the hypocrisy of a water company sending them cutesy messages about showering more quickly while unrepaired leaks waste millions of gallons of water and treatment works dump raw sewage into our waterways.
The company made half a billion pounds in profit last year and their chief executive, Liv Garfield, was paid a cool £4mn. Meanwhile, they sent Uber drivers rather than skilled technicians to check out dozens of leaks because – in their own words – it is cheaper.
We asked the Severn Trent Water press office if they had any comment to make about the recent EA report. We have had no reply.
This report is a snapshot of the bigger – and very disturbing – picture revealed by the Environment Agency’s report. The falling standards of these two water companies call to mind Jacob Rees-Mogg in 2016: “Britain could slash environmental and safety standards a very long way after Brexit”.
We cannot say for sure that that is what is happening. If it is, will voters think it is worth the cost?
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