Private water companies are routinely dumping raw sewage into Britain’s waterways and coasts. But the Tories claim that fixing this would bankrupt these firms. Clearly the whole system is bankrupt. It’s time to re-nationalise the lot.
Privately-owned water companies dumped raw sewage into England’s rivers and coasts on more than 400,000 separate occasions over 2020. As a result, every single river within England failed water quality pollution testing last year.
The massive scale of this pollution entering waterways is staggering. Collectively, all nine private water companies in England released human waste into rivers for a period of 3.1 million hours.
And raw sewage was spilled into coastal bathing waters – used by holiday makers, swimmers, and surfers – 5,517 times in the last year. This was an increase of more than 87% on the previous year.
The bosses’ chase for profits is devastating ecosystems, as well as seriously endangering people’s health.
Surfers Against Sewage tested the water quality of rivers feeding into popular bathing beaches. In six out of eight rivers the quality of the water was so poor that it posed an ‘extreme danger to human health’.
One unnamed industry source, speaking to the Guardian said that the discharges released “a horrible septic mix of nasties into the rivers”. He said that for several years water companies had ignored the shocking increase in untreated sewage waste being discharged into waterways.
Yet the problem is not one of company bosses ignoring the discharges. Since it is more profitable to simply dump untreated sewage into rivers than invest in the infrastructure required to treat it, this has effectively become company policy across the board.
The UK Environment Agency issues permits that allow water companies to release untreated sewage into rivers during extreme weather events, to prevent sewage backing up pipes into homes and streets.
Yet the profit-driven companies are releasing untreated sewage routinely outside of these extreme circumstances, knowing that it is unlikely that they will get caught. And if they are caught, they count on the potential profits far outweighing the penalties.
In 2010, Tory cuts to the Environment Agency meant that they did not have the funding to carry out enforcement work themselves. Instead, the agency began to rely on water companies to self-monitor their discharges; in other words, for the criminals to police themselves.
This effectively meant that the bosses were granted a free licence to pollute – which they of course did, in order to maximise profits.
The true nature of the scale of the problem was revealed in a recent court case against Southern Water. After a lengthy investigation – prompted by the regular contamination of Kent oyster harvests by fecal matter – it was found that the company had been routinely dumping raw sewage on an industrial scale.
Investigators found out that between 2010 to 2015, Southern Water was responsible for deliberately discharging billions of litres of raw sewage into rivers and the sea, in order to cut costs. And that this was a deliberate criminal operation, sanctioned by senior company management.
Earlier this year, Southern Water was fined a record £90 million for these historic breaches. Yet last year, the company discharged raw sewage 19,782 times according to Environment Agency data, despite being under investigation.
For the bosses, the costs of investing in infrastructure to treat the waste clearly outweigh the penalties of non-compliance.
Southern Water is hardly a rogue operator when it comes to such dodgy practices. As the data reveals, all the privatised water companies in England are up to the same tricks.
Analysis presented to MPs found that the scale of illegal spills is likely 10 times that declared by companies to the Environment Agency.
The problem goes all the way to the top of the government.
In October this year, all but 22 Tory MPs voted against an amendment to the Environment Bill that would have required water companies to “take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”.
Such was the public backlash against this scandalous vote, that the Tories were forced to U-turn when the bill was presented for a second time.
However, the government’s version of the amendment that was passed was significantly watered down. It only requires water companies to make a ‘progressive reduction’ in the use of storm overflows for dumping sewage. This means that the companies can still pollute on an industrial scale, so long as it is slightly less than the previous year.
Even then, 163 MPs still voted against this amendment. Some cited that the required costs involved in upgrading Britain’s creaking sewage infrastructure were ‘too high’, and could bankrupt the private water companies. Others said that they didn’t want household water bills to increase, which they claimed would be necessary to cover the costs involved.
In reality, these Tories’ concerns had nothing to do with increasing household bills, and everything to do with protecting the profits of the water companies. If investing in stopping pollution would bankrupt the water companies, this only goes to prove that the privatised water system is itself completely bankrupt.
Over the past decade, £18.1bn of the water companies’ combined post-tax profit of £18.8bn has been paid as dividends to the rich. On average, this means every household in England is paying £75 a year of their water bill straight into the bank accounts of the capitalists.
This is the real reason why there has been so little investment in the system, resulting in widespread destruction of the environment.
Given the public fury over the scale of the issue, the Environment Agency is now launching a ‘major investigation’ into more than 2,000 sewage treatment works. They are promising ‘enforcement action’ against any companies found to be in breach of their permits.
Given the massive cuts to the Environment Agency over the past decade, however, it is highly unlikely that the regulator will have anything like the required resources to hold these criminal companies to account. And in any case, as the case of Southern Water proves, the potential profits to be made from pollution far outweigh the risk of getting caught.
This mass abuse of our rivers is not a result of dodgy company dealings, but the direct result of privatisation and the capitalist system. A system that puts profits before people, planet and everything else.
As we have seen with every other formally-nationalised enterprise, from electricity to railways, the quality of such services has decreased, whilst the cost of the bills have increased.
All the while, their fat-cat shareholders have lined their pockets at our expense, whilst condemning the environment to ruin.
Only through a socialist planned economy can this disgusting pollution of our rivers and seas be ended once and for all.
By placing these companies under public ownership, under democratic workers’ control, we could radically transform these archaic companies from price-gouging parasitical entities, into sustainable and affordable services run for the good of all.