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.
An excellent FACT based summary, thank you.
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…
Excellent, detailed, well-reasoned post yet again.
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 £75K /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.
Excellent riposte! Thank you!
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.
Totally appropriate not a rant.
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.
“… 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!
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 £1m pa salaries to their execs.
£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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
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!
Could even argue for a tourist tax
best thing about Thames Water? Outgoing CEO is very easy on the eye…
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.