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The dirty truth about sewage Westminster can no longer ignore the stink

Britain is up shit creek. Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images


June 16, 2023   6 mins

“The sewer is the conscience of the city,” Victor Hugo wrote in Les MisĂ©rables. “The mass of filth has this in its favour: that it is not a liar.” I thought about that quote recently, when I heard how Britain’s water companies are planning to improve the country’s rampantly polluting sewage network. As tales abound of quaint Cumbria villages confined to their cottages by foul-smelling air and idyllic Cornish coves turning brown, water companies have pledged to spend an additional ÂŁ10 billion between now and 2030. But rather than take on this investment themselves, or cut their plentiful dividends, the industry intends to pay for it by hiking our bills. Even then, they admitted, the investment is only likely to cut spills by half compared to 2020. As solutions go it seems, well, pretty shitty.

Britain’s waters are in a foul state. Official statistics show that there was an average of 825 sewage spills a day last year — including in the Environment Secretary’s own Suffolk constituency, where the water contains levels of e. coli more than 20 times the limit for bathing. In England, just 14% of rivers are rated ecologically “good”. In January, an NHS worker caught hepatitis while wild swimming, and last summer, dozens of beaches in England were closed due to toxic waste warnings.

The result is that the seemingly old-fashioned issue of sanitation — a problem most of us thought we’d solved around the same time as cholera — has once again become a political flashpoint. Half the British public now see protecting rivers as an important voting issue. In the May local elections, both the Liberal Democrats and Greens specifically targeted sewage as a swing issue — and saw their biggest gains in years. The Conservative seats newly up for by-elections should take note: Nadine Dorries’ former constituency of Mid Bedfordshire, for one, is currently in uproar at the sorry state of the river Ouse.

This is part of a wider trend: the environment is now regularly among the top four issues most important to the electorate — beating issues such as crime or childcare. It is even more of a focus in Conservative-held swing seats. And there’s a reason why sewage inspires such strong emotions — beyond the fact that it’s ruined the wild swimming trend. The scandal is in many ways a perfect microcosm of Britain’s political woes of the last decade: austerity, failed privatisation, corporate greed, climate apathy. After all, what good is a government if it can’t keep our shit out of our streams?

If you want to understand how this country’s waters got into such a mess, an obvious place to start is in 2010, with the coalition government. Its austerity policies slashed spending ringfenced for environmental protection by 80%, gutting the Environmental Agency’s ability to monitor our waters and, crucially, enforce punitive measures against polluters. It’s hardly surprising that, since then, sewage spill events into British rivers have doubled.

But one could go back even further. It was Margaret Thatcher’s government that, in 1989, privatised water utilities in England — making it the only country in the world to do so. The water companies were granted regional monopolies, debt-free, the argument being that they could run the system more competitively than the state could. In reality, many water companies have spent the decades since loading themselves with debt, deploying increasingly byzantine financial engineering to avoid corporation tax, and paying billions to shareholders and millions to their own executives — all the while under-investing in infrastructure and hiking prices for customers at rates considerably above inflation. Handed a money tap, they simply turned the spigot.

But if you want to get to the real heart of our sewage crisis, it makes sense to go back even further, to the summer of 1858, and the now infamous “Great Stink”. One of the things that period dramas never capture about Victorian England is the stench. It’s hard to imagine: tanneries filled the air with the scent of urine-soaked hides, and soap-makers with the smell of boiling bones. Carriages clogged the roads, leaving them caked in horse manure. But worst of all would have been the smell of human shit.

Before the widespread adoption of sewers, people used privies — holes that emptied into a cesspit. For centuries those cesspits were cleaned out by nightsoil men, who would come by and, for a small fee, dig out and cart your waste away to farms on the outskirts of the city to be used as fertiliser. In the 1840s, led by sanitary reformers such as Edwin Chadwick, the British government passed a series of measures to try to clean up the capital. Among their reforms: mandating the connection of cesspits to the city’s sewers.

It was a deadly mistake. Rather than clear the air as Chadwick had hoped, the solution channelled an ever-greater deluge of foulness into the Thames. By the 1850s, the river was unimaginably polluted. Dickens called it a “deadly sewer”, Benjamin Disraeli a “stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”. In the summer of 1858, London boiled. The water levels in the river fell, leaving the waste within slathered up the banks. The smell fell foul across the city; there were reports of people feeling sick from miles away. Parliament ordered the curtains doused in lime chloride to mask the stench, with little effect.

The Great Stink led Westminster’s flailing political classes to finally act. They appointed the Joseph Bazalgette — one of the great British engineers of his time — to design a massive new sewage system for London. Bazalgette’s plan was astonishing in scope: it resulted in the laying of 720km of new sewer lines and the creation of the Victoria and Albert embankments, reshaping the city and its connection to the Thames. The resulting reduction in exposure to unclean water likely prevented millions of deaths; it’s thought that the introduction of sanitation in the 19th century added 20 years to the average human lifespan.

But Bazalgette’s design had a significant flaw; it was a combined sewer — that is, the main underground pipes were designed to carry both wastewater from buildings and rainwater collected by the city’s drains, to help dilute and flush out the system. During unusually heavy rainfall, they would flood; with such instances in mind, the sewers were designed with outlet valves called Combined Sewer Overflows, which would expel excess flow directly into waterways, untreated. Here is where our current sewage crisis stems from.

When Bazalgette designed London’s sewers, overflows were supposed to be a rare event. But various factors have conspired to make them commonplace. One is the all-engulfing expansion of concrete: new roads, pavements, and building developments block rainwater from entering natural soakaways — trees, soils, wetlands — that would otherwise absorb it. Another factor, inevitably, is climate change, which increased the occurrence and intensity of storms — and therefore flooding.

Today, there are around 100,000km of combined sewers in England alone, and around 15,000 overflows. Modern sanitary engineers hate them, but because so many of the central “hub” sewers are combined, introducing new models often doesn’t make a difference. To prevent spills, water utilities have periodically built storm overflow tanks, designed to hold excess sewage until it can be treated. But due to systemic under-investment by water companies, there is at present simply not enough capacity to store it all. For my book, Wasteland, I visited Mogden sewage works in London, which serves an estimated two million people: it has a series of storm tanks installed, and yet in 2020 alone it released enough sewage into the Thames to fill 2,768 Olympic swimming pools.

Water companies often use their ancient infrastructure as an excuse for not solving their pollution problem. It’s certainly true that replacing our combined system would be a Bazalgettian feat; a government-commissioned report, published in 2021, estimated that eliminating storm overflows in the UK would cost up to £600 billion, and increase household bills by up to £999 a year. (Not that we would have to replace the whole system to make the situation more bearable.) It would also do nothing to solve the other primary culprit behind our spoiled waters, the rampant phosphate pollution by industrial farms. The current plan, in London at least, is to divert the existing combined sewers into something even bigger: the £5 billion Tideway Tunnel currently being dug under the Thames. Thames Water estimates that when the “super sewer” is completed in 2024, 95% of raw sewage that pollutes the river today will no longer flow into it.

But the fact is, just continuously expanding the old system isn’t going to work. This is one of the central dilemmas presented by climate change: do we press ahead with novel but potentially expensive technological solutions, or do we look back, and find inspiration in the natural world? China, for example, has met the sewage challenge by embracing so-called “sponge cities”, in which natural soakaways, permeable pavements, and wetlands are being built into city planning in order to soak up storm water and prevent flooding.

But swales and reed beds are not going to replace our traditional sewage infrastructure any time soon. Solving this problem can’t wait. With summer droughts becoming more common and storms more intense, protecting our water supply is only becoming more vital. Whoever wants to win the next election is going to need to convince the public they can turn the situation around, and fast.


Oliver Franklin-Wallis is an award-winning magazine journalist. His book, Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, And Why It Matters, is published by Simon & Schuster on 22nd June 2023.

olifranklin

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Nell Clover
Nell Clover
11 months ago

It’s amazing how the three principal reasons for the overflows are not mentioned. Climate change gets a big mention despite the most tenuous of evidence.

The system was designed for a population of 2.5 million, with an absolute maximum capacity for 4 million with designed-for overflows. London’s population in the catchment area is now north of 5 million.

The system was designed to handle about 40 litres of waste water per person per day. A typical Londoner today uses nearer 140 litres per day.

Ground water abstraction for heavy industry has almost stopped. London’s ground water is rising, dramatically so. From a low of 90m* in the 60s, it is now 40m* and still rising. This reduces how much water can freely soak away into the ground and directly increases the incidents of flash flooding. It is also a serious problem for London Underground, who now must pump more of this into the waste water system.

These aren’t idle speculations. These are the quantitatively measured reasons. Climate change is just a convenient excuse by water companies and government that happens to fit with the world view of the laptop and latte class that write most of the garbage written on this subject.

*measured at Trafalgar Square.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nell Clover
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

An excellent FACT based summary, thank you.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
10 months ago

no.. its all because of discrimination against LGBTQ, and racism, surely, as well as zero carbon global warming planet destruction…. oops?… now where are my 2 brain cells? I must have sneezed and they got stuck on my ballot paper…

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
10 months ago

no.. its all because of discrimination against LGBTQ, and racism, surely, as well as zero carbon global warming planet destruction…. oops?… now where are my 2 brain cells? I must have sneezed and they got stuck on my ballot paper…

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Excellent, detailed, well-reasoned post yet again.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Good comments . What is ignored by author is 1963 Water Resources Act. Councils in industrial areas and NCB did not want to increase rates leading to under investment , especially of sewage treatment works. Privatisation was due to massive debt and need to invest, especially in sewage treatment. in caused by unwillingness to increase water rates by adequate amount.
Allowing organisation to discharge heavy metals to sewers which meant sewage not be used on fields easily. Also overmanning of un and semi skilled people. When The water companies did attract good graduates, after about six years, promotion ground to a halt and was based upon buggins turn, so many left.
Wilson talked about the white heat of technology but appointed Cousins of the TGWU as minister of technology who maintained vast overmanning of the un and semi skilled; no investment in new technology and maintaining numerous trades which lead to demarcation disputes and massive costs compared to countries such as Germany. If we take the steel industry, a job required 15 trades in the Uk was done by 1 in Japan.
The construction of 5 to 6m deep sewers is expensive and a dangerous work and costs can rise dramatically where demarcation, go slows and strikes occur. Often strikes would take place after September to slow down construction so contractors would pay excessive over time to bring project back on track by Christmas. In the 1980s tunnellers on Cairo Waste Water Project were earning ÂŁ75K /year. Many of the tunnellers on sewers were ex miners and probably some of the most highly paid manual workers in the UK.
Water consumoption is about 170 l per day. Also many chemicals used in toiletries and beauty products are very difficult to remove from sewage.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
10 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Excellent riposte! Thank you!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

An excellent FACT based summary, thank you.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Excellent, detailed, well-reasoned post yet again.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Good comments . What is ignored by author is 1963 Water Resources Act. Councils in industrial areas and NCB did not want to increase rates leading to under investment , especially of sewage treatment works. Privatisation was due to massive debt and need to invest, especially in sewage treatment. in caused by unwillingness to increase water rates by adequate amount.
Allowing organisation to discharge heavy metals to sewers which meant sewage not be used on fields easily. Also overmanning of un and semi skilled people. When The water companies did attract good graduates, after about six years, promotion ground to a halt and was based upon buggins turn, so many left.
Wilson talked about the white heat of technology but appointed Cousins of the TGWU as minister of technology who maintained vast overmanning of the un and semi skilled; no investment in new technology and maintaining numerous trades which lead to demarcation disputes and massive costs compared to countries such as Germany. If we take the steel industry, a job required 15 trades in the Uk was done by 1 in Japan.
The construction of 5 to 6m deep sewers is expensive and a dangerous work and costs can rise dramatically where demarcation, go slows and strikes occur. Often strikes would take place after September to slow down construction so contractors would pay excessive over time to bring project back on track by Christmas. In the 1980s tunnellers on Cairo Waste Water Project were earning ÂŁ75K /year. Many of the tunnellers on sewers were ex miners and probably some of the most highly paid manual workers in the UK.
Water consumoption is about 170 l per day. Also many chemicals used in toiletries and beauty products are very difficult to remove from sewage.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
10 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Excellent riposte! Thank you!

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
11 months ago

It’s amazing how the three principal reasons for the overflows are not mentioned. Climate change gets a big mention despite the most tenuous of evidence.

The system was designed for a population of 2.5 million, with an absolute maximum capacity for 4 million with designed-for overflows. London’s population in the catchment area is now north of 5 million.

The system was designed to handle about 40 litres of waste water per person per day. A typical Londoner today uses nearer 140 litres per day.

Ground water abstraction for heavy industry has almost stopped. London’s ground water is rising, dramatically so. From a low of 90m* in the 60s, it is now 40m* and still rising. This reduces how much water can freely soak away into the ground and directly increases the incidents of flash flooding. It is also a serious problem for London Underground, who now must pump more of this into the waste water system.

These aren’t idle speculations. These are the quantitatively measured reasons. Climate change is just a convenient excuse by water companies and government that happens to fit with the world view of the laptop and latte class that write most of the garbage written on this subject.

*measured at Trafalgar Square.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nell Clover
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

This was generally an excellent article, outlining real issues and the massive costs involved in real solutions.

But the references to climate change irritates me. I know it’s probably inappropriate to mention it, because the article really isn’t about climate change, but these lazy references to climate change happen all the time.

Here are two quotes:

“Another factor, inevitably, is climate change, which increased the occurrence and intensity of storms — and therefore flooding.”

“With summer droughts becoming more common and storms more intense, protecting our water supply is only becoming more vital.”

So what is it? More rain or less rain? Of course, neither of these assertions are backed up by actual numbers. The one link takes you to a BBC article that doesn’t include numbers either.

Sorry for the inappropriate rant, but this shows you how the climate alarmist narrative infects the culture.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jim Veenbaas
Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Excellent comment.
Totally appropriate not a rant.

John Hodgson
John Hodgson
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Nell Clover’s points are well made, and certainly suggest that climate change is not yet a major contributor to London’s sewage problem. However – pace Jim Veenbaas’ rant – it is not contradictory that extremes of rain (too much and too little) can both cause problems for the water system.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“… lazy references to climate change happen all the time.”
Spot on! Well stated. I’m sick of being brainwashed all day, every day with the ‘climate change’ mantra. And what does ‘climate change’ mean? It is a vague (deliberately) term that can conveniently be applied to any climate, weather or meteorological phenomenon by any self-styled environmental carer AKA activist. Thank God these people did not have to deal with the Ice Age!

Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Excellent comment.
Totally appropriate not a rant.

John Hodgson
John Hodgson
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Nell Clover’s points are well made, and certainly suggest that climate change is not yet a major contributor to London’s sewage problem. However – pace Jim Veenbaas’ rant – it is not contradictory that extremes of rain (too much and too little) can both cause problems for the water system.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“… lazy references to climate change happen all the time.”
Spot on! Well stated. I’m sick of being brainwashed all day, every day with the ‘climate change’ mantra. And what does ‘climate change’ mean? It is a vague (deliberately) term that can conveniently be applied to any climate, weather or meteorological phenomenon by any self-styled environmental carer AKA activist. Thank God these people did not have to deal with the Ice Age!

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

This was generally an excellent article, outlining real issues and the massive costs involved in real solutions.

But the references to climate change irritates me. I know it’s probably inappropriate to mention it, because the article really isn’t about climate change, but these lazy references to climate change happen all the time.

Here are two quotes:

“Another factor, inevitably, is climate change, which increased the occurrence and intensity of storms — and therefore flooding.”

“With summer droughts becoming more common and storms more intense, protecting our water supply is only becoming more vital.”

So what is it? More rain or less rain? Of course, neither of these assertions are backed up by actual numbers. The one link takes you to a BBC article that doesn’t include numbers either.

Sorry for the inappropriate rant, but this shows you how the climate alarmist narrative infects the culture.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jim Veenbaas
Simon Diggins
Simon Diggins
11 months ago

Good article and discussion: thank you @NeilClover in particular.

Having just finished working for Thames Water (“..the shame, the shame”), I think I might have put more emphasis on the role of structural, legislative, and regulatory, factors. The size of the overspill tanks is agreed with the Environment Agency, who also issue the overspill permits: often, if a water company can’t meet the targets, they will be permitted a regulatory derogation but this is only visible if you analyse things, STW (sewage treatment works) by STW. What is also invisible at the moment is the volume, and type, of spill; the only information is that there has been a spill and it’s duration was x.

The second regulatory element is that controlled by OFWAT, especially around pricing. All improvements have to be agreed with OFWAT who apply very restrictive ‘value for money’ criteria, as well as desperately trying to keep prices low so that we can continue to pretend that we can have clean water, sewage disposal and a whole range of other ‘goods’ around the environment, on the cheap: we can’t.

Lastly, very much agree with the article’s strictures on the financial chicanery; Thames has nine (sic!) layers of financial ownership above ‘Thames Water Utility Limited’ – the bit we all might understand as a utilities company – all drawing ‘rent’ and none interested in anything other than maintaining that and paying ÂŁ1m pa salaries to their execs.

Complete disgrace.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

£1m salaries to water company executives may well be a complete disgrace, but in the scheme of things that cost won’t make a big difference. The complex financial structures are designed to attract equity and debt investors into the sector. No doubt cash is creamed off by lawyers, banks and executives in the process, But if investment capital isn’t attracted into the sector, there is a price to pay for that too.

Last edited 11 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

£1m salaries to water company executives may well be a complete disgrace, but in the scheme of things that cost won’t make a big difference. The complex financial structures are designed to attract equity and debt investors into the sector. No doubt cash is creamed off by lawyers, banks and executives in the process, But if investment capital isn’t attracted into the sector, there is a price to pay for that too.

Last edited 11 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Simon Diggins
Simon Diggins
11 months ago

Good article and discussion: thank you @NeilClover in particular.

Having just finished working for Thames Water (“..the shame, the shame”), I think I might have put more emphasis on the role of structural, legislative, and regulatory, factors. The size of the overspill tanks is agreed with the Environment Agency, who also issue the overspill permits: often, if a water company can’t meet the targets, they will be permitted a regulatory derogation but this is only visible if you analyse things, STW (sewage treatment works) by STW. What is also invisible at the moment is the volume, and type, of spill; the only information is that there has been a spill and it’s duration was x.

The second regulatory element is that controlled by OFWAT, especially around pricing. All improvements have to be agreed with OFWAT who apply very restrictive ‘value for money’ criteria, as well as desperately trying to keep prices low so that we can continue to pretend that we can have clean water, sewage disposal and a whole range of other ‘goods’ around the environment, on the cheap: we can’t.

Lastly, very much agree with the article’s strictures on the financial chicanery; Thames has nine (sic!) layers of financial ownership above ‘Thames Water Utility Limited’ – the bit we all might understand as a utilities company – all drawing ‘rent’ and none interested in anything other than maintaining that and paying ÂŁ1m pa salaries to their execs.

Complete disgrace.

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
11 months ago

A classic piece by a journalist who knows everything and understands nothing – a deluge of meaningless or incorrect facts.
A few points: (a) There are privately owned or operated water utilities all over the world. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but England is not unique. (b) The cumulative net cash flow of privatised water utilities was negative for decades. The companies were privatised because the government couldn’t afford to borrow the money that was required to meet EU rules in the 1990s. Paying dividends out of borrowing isn’t good, but no-one will put in capital without an expectation of being paid a return. (c) Combining sewers & storm water drainage made sense at the time they were built. You can’t just wish them away when usage has grown and expectations have changed. (d) Where is the evidence that water quality is actually worse in 2020 than it was in 1980? Some places are worse but the averages are much better.
The end of the piece admits that it all comes down to money. For all the complaints how many are willing to pay water & sewerage bills that are 50-100% higher in real terms to fix the problems. Private water companies are just designated villains – who often don’t help their case – but things would be no better and quite probably worse if they were publicly owned. The evidence from around the world is that public water utilities are less efficient, have worse financial and environmental performance, and are a serious drain on public finances.
No one should believe that private utilities are always the best. Ultimately, though, we should look at ourselves. As a general rule the public doesn’t want to pay the costs of meeting the standards and performance that they claim to want. Regulators try to hold the balance but increasingly this doesn’t work because the gap between what activists want and the public is willing to pay for gets larger. Population growth makes this even more difficult.

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
11 months ago

A classic piece by a journalist who knows everything and understands nothing – a deluge of meaningless or incorrect facts.
A few points: (a) There are privately owned or operated water utilities all over the world. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but England is not unique. (b) The cumulative net cash flow of privatised water utilities was negative for decades. The companies were privatised because the government couldn’t afford to borrow the money that was required to meet EU rules in the 1990s. Paying dividends out of borrowing isn’t good, but no-one will put in capital without an expectation of being paid a return. (c) Combining sewers & storm water drainage made sense at the time they were built. You can’t just wish them away when usage has grown and expectations have changed. (d) Where is the evidence that water quality is actually worse in 2020 than it was in 1980? Some places are worse but the averages are much better.
The end of the piece admits that it all comes down to money. For all the complaints how many are willing to pay water & sewerage bills that are 50-100% higher in real terms to fix the problems. Private water companies are just designated villains – who often don’t help their case – but things would be no better and quite probably worse if they were publicly owned. The evidence from around the world is that public water utilities are less efficient, have worse financial and environmental performance, and are a serious drain on public finances.
No one should believe that private utilities are always the best. Ultimately, though, we should look at ourselves. As a general rule the public doesn’t want to pay the costs of meeting the standards and performance that they claim to want. Regulators try to hold the balance but increasingly this doesn’t work because the gap between what activists want and the public is willing to pay for gets larger. Population growth makes this even more difficult.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
11 months ago

If people want higher quality water infrastructure, they will have to pay for it. Which means they will have less to spend on other things. It’s one of the many prices of a rising, low productivity, population. Private vs public is a red herring given how tightly the sector is regulated – if regulated water charges had been higher, there would have been more funds available for reinvestment. Despite the bizarre claim in the article, France privatised its water sector long before the UK. If water companies make these investments themselves, they will have to cut dividends. If they cut dividends, they won’t have investors. If they don’t have investors, customers will have to pay for all this investment upfront, rather than spread over many years.

Last edited 11 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Nell Clover
Nell Clover
11 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

It is worth adding the water industry’s investment plans are agreed by the government’s regulator. More often than not, it has been the regulator that has rejected higher investment plans.

Whilst water companies are no angels, it is in the interests of water companies to spend more on infrastructure as that increases the value of their regulated capital value and in turn this influences how much they can charge customers. Very simply: more investment, more revenue. The regulator has only a short term focus on managing bills for political reasons, safe in the knowledge it is the water companies that face the damaging PR when problems arise due to under investment.

In reality, only the water industry assets were privatised. Water industry management is even more highly centralised and government controlled than when it was a set of regional state owned companies. This same awful model afflicts energy infrastructure too.

Ultimately, none of this changes the financial equation that customers must in the end pay for the infrastructure used to provide the services they consume.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nell Clover
Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

And if the water companies were renationalised, their debt would be added to the already enormous public debt pile. And there would be same or even greater political pressure to starve the sector of investment to keep costs low in the short term.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
11 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

And if the water companies were renationalised, their debt would be added to the already enormous public debt pile. And there would be same or even greater political pressure to starve the sector of investment to keep costs low in the short term.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
11 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

It is worth adding the water industry’s investment plans are agreed by the government’s regulator. More often than not, it has been the regulator that has rejected higher investment plans.

Whilst water companies are no angels, it is in the interests of water companies to spend more on infrastructure as that increases the value of their regulated capital value and in turn this influences how much they can charge customers. Very simply: more investment, more revenue. The regulator has only a short term focus on managing bills for political reasons, safe in the knowledge it is the water companies that face the damaging PR when problems arise due to under investment.

In reality, only the water industry assets were privatised. Water industry management is even more highly centralised and government controlled than when it was a set of regional state owned companies. This same awful model afflicts energy infrastructure too.

Ultimately, none of this changes the financial equation that customers must in the end pay for the infrastructure used to provide the services they consume.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nell Clover
Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
11 months ago

If people want higher quality water infrastructure, they will have to pay for it. Which means they will have less to spend on other things. It’s one of the many prices of a rising, low productivity, population. Private vs public is a red herring given how tightly the sector is regulated – if regulated water charges had been higher, there would have been more funds available for reinvestment. Despite the bizarre claim in the article, France privatised its water sector long before the UK. If water companies make these investments themselves, they will have to cut dividends. If they cut dividends, they won’t have investors. If they don’t have investors, customers will have to pay for all this investment upfront, rather than spread over many years.

Last edited 11 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Nick Wade
Nick Wade
11 months ago

I was enjoying this article until the dreaded “Climate Change” reared its inevitable head. Much like Brexit caused everything bad, and Covid vaccines are safe and effective, this mantra just keeps getting repeated.

The icing on the cake was the reference being a BBC article. This is the same BBC that deploys the high priest of Climate Change, David Attenborough – for it is a religion/cult – every Sunday evening, to terrify the children.

So tiresome.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nick Wade
Nick Wade
Nick Wade
11 months ago

I was enjoying this article until the dreaded “Climate Change” reared its inevitable head. Much like Brexit caused everything bad, and Covid vaccines are safe and effective, this mantra just keeps getting repeated.

The icing on the cake was the reference being a BBC article. This is the same BBC that deploys the high priest of Climate Change, David Attenborough – for it is a religion/cult – every Sunday evening, to terrify the children.

So tiresome.

Last edited 11 months ago by Nick Wade
Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
11 months ago

I started writing a lengthy response to this article mentioning my experience as a managment consultant in the late ’80’s working for the MMC on review of Southern Water and the private companies in the region but came to the conclusion that ineffeciencies embedded in public sector companies would not be believed by an author who was at University in 2007/8.
It is obvious that we now have a generation of opinion formers for whom Nationalised Industries and the Free Market Recovery during the ‘Thatcher Years’ is a taught experience not a lived experience. That teaching has been carried out in the hallowed corridors of our tertiary edustion establishments by those that abhor the concept of Free Markets and Enterprise much preferring a Command Economy managed by the State.
It is obvious that this century’s graduates have fully absorbed their lectures without any discussion or debate of the alternatives.

Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
11 months ago

I started writing a lengthy response to this article mentioning my experience as a managment consultant in the late ’80’s working for the MMC on review of Southern Water and the private companies in the region but came to the conclusion that ineffeciencies embedded in public sector companies would not be believed by an author who was at University in 2007/8.
It is obvious that we now have a generation of opinion formers for whom Nationalised Industries and the Free Market Recovery during the ‘Thatcher Years’ is a taught experience not a lived experience. That teaching has been carried out in the hallowed corridors of our tertiary edustion establishments by those that abhor the concept of Free Markets and Enterprise much preferring a Command Economy managed by the State.
It is obvious that this century’s graduates have fully absorbed their lectures without any discussion or debate of the alternatives.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
11 months ago

Britain’s water supply and waste system has been like this for decades , and long before privatisation. Nothing has changed recently except for population pressure but the media us suddenly up in arms about it.
I get the feeling that this is being weaponised against the government and will become a non-issue as soon as the preferred Labour Government is in and showering subsidies. Not that the current lot aren’t doing that, but it gains them nothing electorally.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
11 months ago

Britain’s water supply and waste system has been like this for decades , and long before privatisation. Nothing has changed recently except for population pressure but the media us suddenly up in arms about it.
I get the feeling that this is being weaponised against the government and will become a non-issue as soon as the preferred Labour Government is in and showering subsidies. Not that the current lot aren’t doing that, but it gains them nothing electorally.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
10 months ago

Governments need to realise that private equity sweats revenue, and is not a low return long play capital investor… hence the crumbling infrastructure will never be replaced let alone mended. There is a simple solution that UK governments refuse to use – long dated ( 30-50) years hybrid quasi bond issues Government guaranteed in default only, that life and pension funds will love, that can fix utilities long term infrastructure capital spend, and that includes phone masts…

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
10 months ago

Governments need to realise that private equity sweats revenue, and is not a low return long play capital investor… hence the crumbling infrastructure will never be replaced let alone mended. There is a simple solution that UK governments refuse to use – long dated ( 30-50) years hybrid quasi bond issues Government guaranteed in default only, that life and pension funds will love, that can fix utilities long term infrastructure capital spend, and that includes phone masts…

Paul T
Paul T
11 months ago

What is “raw sewage”? There is foul water and then there is rain water. I know that I personally refer to foul water – from toilets, sinks, dishwashers, washing machines, as very different to rainwater runoff. I think most people agree. The sewage companies even provide separate systems of pipes for rainwater runoff and foul water. Why then is rainwater runoff which goes into rivers being routinely labelled as “raw sewage”? When did this definition change? Why?
When it rains I don’t regard the water falling from the sky as “raw sewage” and I am not sure anybody actually thinks that. Am I missing something?

Jack Martin Leith
Jack Martin Leith
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

Paul, it seems that somewhere along the way the separate systems become one:

But Bazalgette’s design had a significant flaw; it was a combined sewer — that is, the main underground pipes were designed to carry both wastewater from buildings and rainwater collected by the city’s drains, to help dilute and flush out the system.

Jack Martin Leith
Jack Martin Leith
10 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

Paul, it seems that somewhere along the way the separate systems become one:

But Bazalgette’s design had a significant flaw; it was a combined sewer — that is, the main underground pipes were designed to carry both wastewater from buildings and rainwater collected by the city’s drains, to help dilute and flush out the system.

Paul T
Paul T
11 months ago

What is “raw sewage”? There is foul water and then there is rain water. I know that I personally refer to foul water – from toilets, sinks, dishwashers, washing machines, as very different to rainwater runoff. I think most people agree. The sewage companies even provide separate systems of pipes for rainwater runoff and foul water. Why then is rainwater runoff which goes into rivers being routinely labelled as “raw sewage”? When did this definition change? Why?
When it rains I don’t regard the water falling from the sky as “raw sewage” and I am not sure anybody actually thinks that. Am I missing something?

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
11 months ago

It sounds like London needs a solution to a problem long in the making. 1000 pounds a year per person is not so little, but how about a special tax, a bond sale, etc? It seems worth it!

L Easterbrook
L Easterbrook
11 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Could even argue for a tourist tax

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
10 months ago

best thing about Thames Water? Outgoing CEO is very easy on the eye…

Leanne B
Leanne B
10 months ago

Water all over the world is polluted. New Zealand has some of the most polluted waterways in the world. Spain’s beaches are being closed. Let’s try and be a bit more honest shall we, so the actual issue can be addressed.

Paul T
Paul T
2 months ago

?