Campaigners angry over bill rises amid ‘environmental carnage’ of sewage spills

Campaigners have reacted with fury to proposed water bill increases for households amid the sewage pollution scandal and cost-of-living crisis.

Regulator Ofwat has issued draft proposals to put up bills by £19 a year on average, or £94 over five years, a third less than the £144 average requested by water companies.

Ofwat said its proposals approved a tripling of investment to make sustained improvement to customer services and the environment, including a 44% reduction in sewage spills from storm overflows, compared with levels in 2021, and plans for nine reservoirs to reduce water taken from rivers.

But while Water UK, which represents water companies, complained that Ofwat has “failed to be realistic about the levels of investment needed”, and urged the regulator to let them get on with an unprecedented overhaul of the country’s water infrastructure, campaigners had a very different take.

Sewage spills from water infrastructure have contributed to a situation in which no single river in England is considered to be in good overall health, and beauty spots including Windermere in the Lake District have been polluted.

Storm overflows – which release untreated wastewater into rivers and seas when there is heavy rain to prevent sewers becoming overwhelmed – dumped sewage into the environment 464,056 times and for more than 3.6 million hours in 2023.

Water utilities have also been hit by multimillion-pound fines for repeated and damaging illegal pollution in the last five years, and there is concern about the levels of leaks from water infrastructure – especially in times of drought when hosepipe bans are imposed.

And worse is to come as climate change and worsening weather extremes, from downpours to drought, pile more pressure on supplies.

Meanwhile, some of the privatised water companies are creaking under high levels of debt or face criticism over dividends to shareholders and executive bonuses.

Reacting to the announcement by Ofwat, Giles Bristow, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “The General Election campaign made clear that the public is fed up with those in power turning a blind eye to the sewage scandal.

“Unfortunately today’s announcement, in which Ofwat accepts that we will all have to swim and surf in sewage way beyond 2030, does nothing to change that.

“Signing off on the continuation of at least 200,000 sewage discharges a year is simply unacceptable and a sign that the regulator still doesn’t comprehend the scale of public fury on this issue.”

A bar chart showing the proposed change in average water bill by 2029/30 with Southern Water the highest at more than £150
(PA Graphics)

He called for the new Labour Government to launch a public inquiry as the only way to “help us understand how we got here and how we can dig our way out”.

Paul de Zylva, from Friends of the Earth, said the decision on bills and investment “yet again proves that our current form of water privatisation is not fit for purpose”.

“It sees water companies pile pressure on Ofwat to allow them to hike customers’ bills to subsidise long-overdue investment in our crumbling sewage infrastructure which might cut or prevent some, but by no means all, pollution.”

While he said Ofwat’s draft determination shows it is not pandering to everything water companies want, many will still see the increase in bills as “unfair”.

He called for the Government to provide greater funding for the Environment Agency, which is tasked with regulating the environmental actions of water companies, and put a “green duty” on Ofwat alongside its environmental focus, as well as impose tougher sanctions on “irresponsible” water firms.

New Environment Secretary Steve Reed is meeting bosses from all 16 water companies covering England and Wales on Thursday, amid the furore over bills and sewage.

Labour has set out the first steps it plans to take to tackle the issue, including ring-fencing funding for infrastructure, and more power and focus on customers.

Tim Farron, environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats who campaigned heavily on the sewage scandal in the election, warned that any “insulting price hikes” by water companies must be blocked.

“It is a national scandal that these disgraced firms are demanding more money from families and pensioners in a cost-of-living crisis, all whilst dumping raw sewage into our rivers,” he said.

“Communities spoke loudly at the election, demanding an end to the sewage scandal and water firms stuffing their pockets with bonuses and dividends. The Government and regulator must listen to the country.”

The Green Party has called for water companies to be taken into public ownership.

Green MP Sian Berry said: “Once this is done, Government can invest affordably in the creaking infrastructure without all the harm falling on to our bills, and into our rivers and oceans that are currently being treated as open sewers.”

And chief executive of campaign group River Action James Wallace said: “These bill hikes punish households struggling with the cost-of-living crisis for the abject failure of greedy water companies to invest in their crumbling infrastructure and reduce record sewage spills.

“For decades the industry has put profit before the environment, rewarding its shareholders with billions in dividends, and in the process filling our rivers with human sewage.

“We must fix this national embarrassment of systemic sewage pollution which has caused environmental carnage to our rivers.”

Mr Wallace called for failing water companies to be put into special administration, and for Ofwat and the EA to be properly resourced and reformed to prioritise people and the environment.