It was Ernest Hemingway who said that you go bankrupt two ways – first gradually and then suddenly. The same could be said about the current water scandal in England.
The issue is not new – we ourselves have been writing about it since last year – but suddenly, things seem to have reached a tipping point. Now, if you’ll pardon the turn of phrase, the shit really has hit the fan.
The slow burn of this issue can be traced back over many years.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government sold off the state-owned regional water authorities in 1989 (against the run of public feeling). England and Wales are the only countries in the world to have a fully privatised water and sewage disposal system. Now, more than 70% of the shares in England’s nine privatised water companies belong to overseas organisations. Last year, the CEOs of these nine companies took home £15mn between them, an annual rise of 27%.
Meanwhile, the whole shebang is failing. The regulators – Ofwat and the Environment Agency – don’t regulate while, in 2021, raw or partially treated sewage was spilled into our waterways for 3.4 million hours, shellfish areas had sewage dumped into them 29,000 times and leaky pipes in England and Wales lost more than one trillion litres of water.
But it’s OK. Ofwat suggest that we should turn off the tap when we clean our teeth. That’ll definitely sort it.
Current Conservative darling Liz Truss was in charge at Defra between 2014 and 2016. In that time, she slashed £235mn from Environment Agency funding. That included taking £24mn from the grant for environmental protection, for surveillance of water companies to prevent the dumping of raw sewage.
The ‘suddenly’ bit of the scandal seems to have arisen because the confluence of all these factors – the 15 million quid, the leaks, the torrents of untreated sewage – has become too much for people to tolerate.
During this hot summer, beaches in Sussex and Devon have had to close as companies pump raw sewage straight into the sea. In other places, monitors are either absent or not working so people may be swimming in effluent without even realising it.
High profile campaigners such as Feargal Sharkey and Chris Packham have been speaking out. On social media, a loud and apparently spontaneous, public outcry has been naming and shaming Conservative MPs for enabling the situation. Said MPs have howled at this undoubtedly somewhat simplistic accusation but, as has been widely observed, this government has been in power for 12 years and now there is sewage oozing as far as the eye can see. It’s difficult to feel any sympathy.
What about us?
Ours is a large region with some major rivers and – on the east – a coastline. How have we been affected by the issue?
The Top of the Poops website, allows us to do – ahem – a deep dive into the numbers. Here are the ten Midlandsconstituencies most badly dumped on:
- Derbyshire Dales (Severn Trent Water, MP – Sarah Dines, Conservative): the eleventh worst constituency (out of 597) in the whole of England and Wales, suffering a colossal 36,389 hours of sewage dumping last year.
- Shrewsbury and Atcham (Severn Trent Water, MP – Daniel Kawczynsky, Conservative): 26th worst overall. 23,566 hours of sewage dumping.
- Rutland and Melton (Severn Trent Water and Anglian Water, MP – Alicia Kearns, Conservative): 33rd worst overall, 20,225 hours.
- Kenilworth and Southam (Severn Trent Water and Thames Water, MP – Jeremy Wright, Conservative): 36th worst overall, 18,946 hours.
- West Worcestershire (Severn Trent Water, MP – Harriett Baldwin, Conservative): 53rd worst overall, 14,368 hours.
- North West Leicestershire (Severn Trent Water, MP – Andrew Bridgen, Conservative): 65th worst overall, 12,243 hours.
- Mid Worcestershire (Severn Trent Water, MP – Nigel Huddleston, Conservative): 66th worst overall, 12,052 hours
- Ludlow (Severn Trent Water, MP – Philip Dunne, Conservative): 73rd worst overall, 10,957 hours.
- South Derbyshire (Severn Trent Water, MP – Heather Wheeler, Conservative): 76th worst overall, 10,714 hours.
- Stratford-on-Avon (Severn Trent Water and Thames Water, MP – Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative): 78th overall, 10,646 hours.
None of these figures are good but those for Derbyshire Dales stand out as particularly appalling.
The water treatment works at Duffield is a serial offender in the area and may account for much of the pollution into the River Derwent.
But what about the River Dove, Bradwell Brook or Flagshaw Brook? All these watercourses suffered thousands of hours of discharges last year. And all these watercourses run through popular beauty spots, visited and appreciated by walkers, fishermen and wild swimmers every year.
We can guess at some of the issues – lack of investment, old and neglected infrastructure coupled with an increase in the number of new houses perhaps. But it’s interesting that that isn’t what Ofwat is saying right now. In June, they released a statement which suggests that it is operating expenditure, rather than capital expenditure that has caused all the trouble.
Severn Trent Water is the company responsible for all water and sewage services in Derbyshire Dales. They, presumably, do know what the problems are. We approached their press office for comment and they are ‘looking into it’ for us. We’ll keep you informed.
In their recent report, the Environment Agency looks as if it has finally woken up to the scale of the scandal. It is now talking about criminal prosecutions and prison sentences for CEOs and board members of the responsible companies.
Let us hope the EA isn’t just sabre-rattling. There is no life without water but right now, our water is detrimental to life.