Lib Dems outline plans to replace Ofwat with ‘tough new regulator’

The Liberal Democrats have outlined more details behind its plan to replace water industry watchdog Ofwat with a “tough new regulator”.

Party leader Sir Ed Davey said the Clean Water Authority would be given new powers to tackle sewage dumping and reform the water industry in England and Wales.

Sewage is the headline pledge in the Natural Environment section of the party’s General Election manifesto, which was unveiled on Monday.

In the chapter, the party promised to “end the sewage scandal” by transforming water firms into public benefit companies, banning bonuses for water bosses until discharges and leaks stop, and replacing Ofwat with a new regulator.

The Lib Dems revealed on Tuesday that under the Clean Water Authority, companies would be required to publish real-time data on the volume of sewage they dump into rivers to understand the full environmental impact.

Currently, water firms are required only to publish the length of sewage discharges in hours so some still do not publicly reveal the volume of sewage discharged.

The new watchdog would also have powers to revoke the licence of poorly performing water firms swiftly, put local environment experts on the boards and set legally binding targets on discharges.

Sir Ed said: “People are rightly outraged that Conservative MPs have let water companies get away with pumping their filthy sewage into our rivers and beaches.

“Our plan to set up the Clean Water Authority would help end the Conservative sewage scandal once and for all.

“Through a tough new regulator, we will make sure water companies put the environment and their customers first instead of lining the pockets of their shareholders.

“Every vote for the Liberal Democrats at this election is a vote for a strong local champion who will fight to clean up our rivers and protect the environment.”

Elsewhere, the Lib Dems also said it would consult on where the new Clean Water Authority headquarters would be located, with a shortlist of heavily impacted areas such as Woking, Cardiff, Cambridge, Greater Manchester or Exeter.

According to its analysis of voting data, the party said Conservative MPs voted more than 1,600 times against tougher measures to tackle sewage dumping since 2019.

These measures included strengthening provisions against sewage dumping and making water company bosses criminally liable for sewage discharges.

General Election campaign 2024
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey during the party’s General Election manifesto launch on Monday (Lucy North/PA)

Another analysis by the party, released last month, found that water company executives received £54 million in bonuses since 2019 as the sewage crisis worsened.

Storm overflows dump untreated sewage into rivers and the sea, usually during heavy rainfall to stop sewers from being overwhelmed and backing up into houses.

The Environment Agency revealed that firms released record spills of raw sewage into the sea and rivers in England in 2023, prompting fury from campaigners and MPs.

The figures suggested there were 3.6 million hours of spills, compared with 1.75 million hours in 2022.

Both the frequency and duration of spills were also up on 2020 levels, which saw comparable amounts of rainfall.

Robbie Moore, minister for water and rural growth, said: “The Liberal Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for spreading so much misinformation on sewage.

“We have ensured that 100% of storm overflows are now monitored. We have also given Ofwat the powers to ban bonuses of water companies that have committed criminal breaches.

“Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats’ reckless proposals to eliminate storm overflows could cost households up to almost £7,000 and require pipework to be dug up that is long enough to go two and a half times around the globe.

“The choice is clear: stick with Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives who are taking bold action to tackle this issue or go back to square one with the Liberal Democrats.”