The half-hearted backbench Tory rebellion against government plans to further weaken regulatory protection of British waterways has drawn attention to the scandalous behaviour of private water companies.
The gutless Tory backbenchers were easily fobbed off with a compromise fudged amendment which failed to match an earlier amendment drawn up by the Duke of Wellington and passed in the Lords. But this parliamentary storm in a teacup at least served to turn the spotlight back onto the outrageous greed, incompetence and overweening sense of entitlement that characterise today’s privatised water industry.
Ever since the old Water Board was flushed away in the 1980s, to be replaced by a constellation of regional private monopolies, the provision of water and sewerage services, hitherto considered self-evidently a public health matter for which the state should take responsibility, has been seen primarily as an opportunity to rip off the public with extortionate utility bills whilst letting the existing infrastructure fall to rack and ruin.
In the wake of the shenanigans at Westminster, even the tame media felt obliged to publish stories counterposing (a) the hyperinflated earnings of the chief executives and juicy dividends enjoyed by the shareholders against (b) the swingeing water rates extorted from their customers and the threat to the health and welfare of the general public.
Clearly, the scale of the corruption is becoming too embarrassing for even the tame media to simply brush aside.
On 30 October, the Sunday Times reported: “The bosses of England’s nine water companies have been paid more than £65m in the past five years as millions of litres of sewage have been discharged into Britain’s waterways.”
The article went on to reveal: “Across the industry as a whole, raw sewage spilt into water courses more than 400,000 times last year, a 27 percent increase on the previous year, according to the Environment Agency. Campaigners say this is the main reason why 84 percent of rivers and lakes in England failed to meet government ecological targets.” (Bosses make millions at dirty water firms by Andrew Ellson, The Sunday Times, 30 October 2021)
Bosses making a killing
The Sunday Times piece went on to juxtapose the dire record of three of these companies in poisoning the nation’s rivers and lakes with the ongoing bonanza being enjoyed by their directors. It is worth quoting at length.
1. Severn Trent Water
“Liv Garfield, the chief executive of Severn Trent Water, has earned more than £17.3m since 2014, making her the highest-paid in the industry.
“Her pay package of £2.8m last year – including basic salary of £735,000, £166,500 in pension payments and other benefits and £1.9m in bonuses and incentives – means that she earned more than £12,000 a day.
“Last year, Severn Trent Water was fined £800,000 after pleading guilty to causing sewage to discharge into the Row Brook from the Acton Burnell treatment works in Shrewsbury.
“The offence came to light in 2016 when a man out walking his dog smelt a foul odour and saw a ditch full of raw sewage. The Environment Agency was able to prove that over 17 months Severn Trent Water had illegally discharged 3.8m litres of raw sewage into the brook …”
2. United Utilities
“The second-highest paid is Steve Mogford, 65, the chief executive of United Utilities. Last year he earned £2.94m, making a total of £12.3m since 2017.
“Four years ago, United Utilities was fined £666,000 after pleading guilty to pumping more than 21 million litres of untreated sewage into the River Medlock in Greater Manchester. The Environment Agency said the discharge had a ‘significant impact’ on fish stocks and water quality.”
3. Thames Water
“Brandon Rennet, the chief financial officer at Thames Water, earned £1.21m last year and Sarah Bentley, the company’s new chief executive, made £1.23m.
“In May, Thames Water was fined £4m after pleading guilty to allowing untreated sewage to escape from sewers below London into a park and a river in Surbiton in southwest London. About 79 million litres of sludge escaped across an area of about 6,500sq metres and Aylesbury crown court was told it took 30 people working every day for almost a month to clean up the ankle-deep mess.
“Thames Water had already been fined £20m in 2017 for a series of spillages. The Environment Agency said they were caused by negligence and had killed wildlife.”
Clearly the fines pale into significance when stacked up against the profits to be made by these vandals. But instead of facing prosecution for their vile crime of poisoning Britain’s rivers, deserving of jail time as enemies of the people, these chancers simply slip from one board of directors to the next, their onward passage greased by golden hellos and golden goodbyes.
No amount of wrist-slapping by the regulator Ofwat is going to clear out this stinking Augean stable. That Herculean task can only be accomplished by taking the whole water industry back into public ownership and starting to undo the criminal neglect of the country’s water and sewage system.