‘We’re sorry’: Water companies pledge £10bn to address sewage spills

Shareholders will initially fund the investments

Water UK, which represents England’s water companies, has pledged to invest £10bn this decade to modernise sewer infrastructure and reduce sewage overflows that spill out into waterways across the country.

Last year it was revealed that UK water companies had discharged sewage more than 9,200 times over a 12-month period, and were accused of discharging sewage when there has been no rain more than 160 times – something they are not legally allowed to do. Surfers Against Sewage issued 9,216 sewage pollution alerts through its Safer Seas and Rivers Service. A quarter of these alters were issued during this summer bathing season.

Environment Agency data for 2021 states that untreated sewage was discharged into coastal bathing waters across England for a total of 160,000 hours, in 25,000 separate discharge incidents.

As well as apologising for repeated sewage spills, Water UK stated that the new investment plan would cut overflow discharge incidents by up to 140,000 annually by 2030.

Water UK’s chair Ruth Kelly said: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry. More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.

“We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”

Payslips and spills

Defra called on the water companies to invest £56bn through to 2050 to reduce the discharges and overflow spills.

The new plans set out today (18 May) contribute towards this goal and is on top of the £3bn being spent by the industry between 2020 and 2025.

Shareholders will initially fund the investments. Private water companies in the UK paid out more than £1.4bn in dividends in 2022, almost three times the amount compared to the previous year. However, the water companies have stated that some costs could be passed down to customers through bill increases, which would need to be determined by regulators.

The UK Government previously asked water companies to significantly reduce – and improve the quality of – all storm overflows discharging into or near designated bathing water by 2035. This request was part of a plan from the Defra that was met with immediate backlash from opposition parties.

Ministers from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) called for two bathing water quality areas to be designated per water company per year over the next five-year pricing period. This has been accepted under the new plans and covers up to 100 designated locations.

The EAC’s chairman Philip Dunne MP stated that the sector had delivered a “promising plan” that would take “vital steps to improve the country’s aging sewerage infrastructure”

”The scale of investment now proposed is very welcome, albeit long overdue: it is an encouraging step in the right direction,” Dunne said. “I hope that Ofwat will approve this material increase in the proportion of the sector’s capital investment devoted to improving water quality, as the Committee has been advocating. The plan must look to prioritise the locations most susceptible to damaging overflows, as well as those where improvement can assist most in achieving nutrient neutrality in sensitive catchments.

“People are quite rightly sick and tired of the repeated reports of sewage flowing into our rivers and seas, and we must put a stop to it. Today’s initiatives, if delivered fully, could go a long way to addressing these understandable concerns and returning the country’s precious waterways to good health.”

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