A dismal end to 2018 for water companies, their regulators, and the government

The end of 2018 was not pretty for water companies.

Sadly, as always, our environment and waterways bear the brunt. 

 

Thames Water: deliberately ignoring alarms

First up was Thames Water, fined £2 million at Oxford Crown Court on 21st  December for a pollution incident in 2015 in which two Oxfordshire streams were polluted with raw sewage killing many fish.  

The Court heard that Thames Water had disregarded more than 800 high priority alarms in the six weeks prior to the incident, and a further 300 alarms were reportedly not properly investigated, which would have indicated that a key sewage pumping station was about to fail. A further alarm was apparently deliberately deactivated by staff during a nightshift.

Thames Water should hang its head in shame.

Southern Water: ongoing Ofwat investigation

Next up was Southern Water. Following a freedom of information battle with Ofwat, just before Christmas, we finally received confirmation from Ofwat that an investigation into Southern Water, begun in 2017, remains ongoing.

Ofwat has revealed that it is investigating breaches relating to the company’s general duty to provide and maintain its sewerage system to ensure its area is effectually drained, pursuant to section 94 of the Water Industry Act 1991.  Section 94 is, in effect, the core duty for the bigger water companies – the law requires them to collect and treat sewage properly.

Ofwat has confirmed that the investigation covers all of Southern Water’s wastewater treatment works, and that it is looking also at the company’s own reporting of compliance information to Ofwat between 2010 and 2017 in relation to those wastewater treatment sites.  

Obviously, while nothing is yet concluded, the fact that an investigation is now one and half years old and is dealing with such fundamental issues as the company’s general duty to provide and maintain a sewerage system, strongly suggests that Ofwat is not happy.

Ofwat and the Water Conservation Report

But Ofwat itself has hardly been the most aggressive of regulators and it is about time that it found its teeth. If any further evidence was required that Ofwat needs to start biting, it was delivered by the Government’s Water Conservation Report 2018  - slipped out on 19th December as we all left for the Christmas break.

The Water Conservation Report identified that water company leakage still represents about 22% of all treated water put into the supply network and has scarcely reduced since 2014.  In 2018 eight water companies missed their leakage targets. On the demand management side, per capita consumption of water has scarcely changed in recent years and only 50% of households have a metered supply.  

If one delves into Hansard, the record of Parliamentary debates and committees, it is not hard to find references going back over many years to the need to reduce leakage, increase metering and conserve water.

If one were to read watery debates from the 1990s or, indeed, those leading up to the Water Act 2003, the story would be depressingly familiar to the one we are presented with today.  

Moving forward in 2019

Both Government and Ofwat need to pull their respective fingers out – there are positive signs that the new regime at Ofwat might deliver more environmental protection than in the past, but the jury is still out.

We must have decisive action to reduce per capita consumption of water, introduce universal metering of domestic and industrial consumers (with appropriate safety nets for those essential users who need large supplies) and to finally get a grip of water company failure to address leakage.  

On protecting rivers from low flows due to over-abstraction, the Water Act 2014 requires the Government to report to Parliament by the end of May on progress on abstraction reform. One fears it will have very little new to say.

If the Government’s bold claims, to wish to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, are to mean anything at all, the time for writing more reports, reviews and consultations is over. Action involving aggressive enforcement of the existing law must now follow.

Water companies must improve

However, while we can and should bemoan the chronic lack of firm action by Government, and by Ofwat, and indeed by the Environment Agency in failing to pursue more prosecutions against water companies, the real blame for the damage caused to the water environment by over abstraction, by sewage pollution, and by a general lack of stewardship, falls clearly at the feet of the water companies.  

Those of us in the NGO sector who have been ‘around the block’ have attended so many meetings with water company representatives, all so wonderfully reassuring, promising to sort out the problems. But it is easy to forget that it is now thirty years since water privatisation.

The ongoing failure of the water companies to bring their environmental performance up to a reasonable standard over three decades is a national shame.

 

- Words by Guy Linley-Adams, S&TC's Lawyer