Can it get any worse? 

The sewage crisis has been one of the defining themes of the Conservative party’s 14 years in government.

Ahead of the General Election, Conservative Party deputy chair Angela Richardson called the sewage crisis “a political football.” Quelle surprise! That’s what happens when the incumbent political party drops the ball and then tries to spin itself out of a hole only to dig it deeper.

Tracking back, first there was the habitual denial of anything approaching a significant problem. Ministers delighted in saying it was all down to unpredictably heavy rain overwhelming our Victorian sewage network, only for it later to be shown that barely 12% of the network in England & Wales dates from the 19th century.

Ah, but sewage overflows into rivers and coastal waters perform an important emergency function claimed ministers, only to witness water companies increase their abuse of the term ‘exceptional circumstances’ and bake the practice of dumping sewage into their business model.

Then govt passed legislation that, in effect, let the water companies off the hook while also attempting to frighten the nation with vastly exaggerated estimates of the cost to households of upgrading the sewage network.

Why all the dishonesty and deflection? Was it to protect the water companies and their predominantly private equity owners? Or to deflect attention from the source of the problem, namely privatisation and lack of effective regulation dating from the Thatcher era? Or just a crude attempt to avoid picking up the bill?

Local and national

For many parts of the country sewage pollution has been one of the defining issues of the General Election and symptomatic of the problems associated with the Tory govt mindset of outsourcing and leaving everything to the unregulated market. It hasn’t worked and reflects badly on the Conservatives’ claim to competence – all the more so when compounded by ministers’ naive comments and undeliverable promises.

The roots of the problem are deep. First, there was an ill-advised rush by the Thatcher govt to privatise utilities back in the late eighties without effective regulatory oversight. That period of liberalisation saw many countries privatise their water supply & sewage infrastructure only to find that privatising public utilities doesn’t work when there is no means of bringing the benefits of market competition to bear. England and Chile are the only remaining nations with an entirely privatised water sector.

It’s not as if the lack of investment and modernisation by the privatised water companies wasn’t known about years ago. Nor would successive governments have failed to notice that our infrastructure was being bought up by private equity operators using borrowed money which was then loaded on to the companies’ books while the owners took generous dividends.

If the incoming Conservative Govt in 2010 had come clean and set in place a plan to refocus the regulator, Ofwat, and recognise the failure of financial mechanisms to provide anything other than a profit-focus, the Conservative Party might have been able to weather the storm. But having deliberately gutted the Environment Agency by the time the proverbial s*** hit the fan the Govt was confronted by a ‘perfect storm.’ Both regulators were and continue to be incapable of functioning properly.

As if to add insult to injury, just days ahead of the election Thames Water blithely demonstrated how the whole system has gone off the rails. First the company agreed a £150m dividend to its private equity owners and then revealed that investors had abandoned plans to inject £500m of emergency funding into the firm.

That two-fingered gesture was swiftly followed by Thames’ publication of a report warning that £19bn of its infrastructure is in “poor” or “failed” condition – with pipes, sewage plants, monitoring technology and other assets posing “a risk to public safety, water supply and the environment”.

They knew all along, so did the government. Thames are not the only perpetrators. Anglian Water, who handle most of Uttlesford’s sewage, also have a massive investment deficit in the district and are responsible for serious pollution of our chalk streams.


Possibly the biggest development in the ongoing sewage scandal came on July 2nd, just 2 days before election day. The Supreme Court has ruled that water companies can be sued for nuisance or trespass for dumping sewage even if there has been no negligence or misconduct. Not only does this open the way for thousands of claims by swimmers, fishing clubs, riparian owners, oyster and mussel growers, and many others, but throws wide open yet again the questions surrounding the behaviour of the water companies and their owners, and the role of government.

The next sewage scandal

Dirty water profit

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