Lib Dems pledge water firm reform to tackle sewage

The Liberal Democrats have pledged to put environmental experts on water company boards to ensure sewage spills are taken seriously.

Party leader Sir Ed Davey accused the Conservatives of "sitting on their hands" as water companies released record spills of raw sewage into England's seas and rivers in 2023.

The Lib Dem election policy would see local experts would becoming non-executive directors of water companies "to hold them to account," Sir Ed said.

The government's plan to improve water quality includes introducing unlimited fines for polluters.

Penalties from water companies will be re-invested into a new Water Restoration Fund which aims to improve water quality, the government said.

As part of this, it said polluters could face unlimited fines in the future.

Sir Ed Davey's fondness for an election stunt saw him take to a paddleboard on Windermere, to highlight a recent untreated sewage incident.

The Lib Dem leader quickly fell off the board. After drying himself off, Sir Ed said "there is a serious message" behind his dip in the water.

He told BBC News: "Lakes like Windemere are so precious our environment and our wonderful country, so critical to so many people.

"We need to make sure that the water companies are properly held to account."

The Lib Dems said they would reform water companies into "Public Benefit Companies" and the experts would be expected to hold community meetings to report back on action being taken, if they gain power at the general election.

The scheme is the latest in a series of Lib Dem policies pledging to improve UK waterways.

In the run-up to the general election, the Lib Dems unveiled plans to abolish and replace the water industry regulator Ofwat, and ban water CEO bonuses to address the sewage crisis.

Labour have promised to empower Ofwat to bring criminal charges against water bosses for repeated offenses, as well as blocking bonuses.

According to the Environment Agency, there were 3.6 million hours of spills across the UK, compared to 1.75 million hours in 2022.

Water UK, the industry body for sewerage companies, said this was "unacceptable", but argued that the record levels were due to heavy rain and increased data collection.

Sir Ed highlighted that United Utilities announced a profit jump just weeks after it was responsible for a massive sewage spill in Lake Windermere.

On 16 May, the company published accounts that show a 17.5% rise in underlying operating profits to £517.8m.

At the time chief executive Louise Beardmore said the company has a business plan that "would see us investing more than ever before to improve services across the five counties of the North West".

Speaking before travelling to the Lake District, Sir Ed said: "It's time to get tough on the water industry and a key part of that change must be new ways to hold these firms to account, putting power in the hands of the local communities suffering from this scandal.

"Lib Dems will have the boldest manifesto plans to end the sewage scandal - from a tough new regulator to a ban on greedy exec bonuses to holding water bosses properly to account. "