Opinion: ‘Time to take water companies back into public ownership’

Imagine you are the boss of a water company that has been pumping untreated sewage into rivers and Louise Gittins, the leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council, has a go at you, I suppose you can shrug it off.

After all, the council is Labour-led so you would expect it to be unhappy about things like this.

But when the criticism is from a respected and non-political organization such as Chester Zoo, you know things are getting serious.

In recent weeks, Chester Zoo has questioned the actions of Welsh Water saying recent discharges of sewage into the River Dee are ‘totally unacceptable’ and threaten wildlife by undermining conservation projects.

In a letter sent between the Zoo’s CEO, Jamie Christon, and the water company’s CEO, Peter Perry, Mr Christon highlights the international importance of the River Dee for biodiversity, warning that recent unacceptable discharges of sewage puts species at risk.

He adds: “We believe the current situation is totally unacceptable and would like to know what Dwr Cymru [Welsh Water] are doing to stop the discharge of sewage into the river at Chester, both in the short term and as part of your long-term strategy for ensuring our waterways are clean and healthy.”

They are reasonable questions to ask but the answer seems to be that without massive investment in capital projects and with what seems like an absence of regulation or political will to do anything about it, we are all condemned to suffer from raw, untreated sewage being pumped into our rivers and seas for the foreseeable future.

Welsh Water is a little different from other water companies in that it does not have shareholders and is a not-for-profit organization. For most of us, we pay our water bills to United Utilities (UU) which is very much a company that makes a profit and pays shareholders.

Let me be honest, I have a real problem with privatized water companies. They are monopolies and you can’t walk away from them.

It’s not like the privatized energy companies where, once upon a time, you could switch suppliers and try to get a better deal.

For most of the people in Cheshire, UU sends you your bill and that’s it.

I am becoming increasingly strident in my view that all water companies should be taken back into public ownership. You can survive without many things but you can’t survive without clean water and sanitation.

I just feel water companies are failing on all counts. The Guardian reported in March this year that water companies discharged raw sewage into English rivers 372,533 times in 2021, releasing untreated sewage for a combined total of more than 2.7 million hours.

That is just disgusting.

And there doesn’t appear to be a sense of urgency to fix the problem. The government says its Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan was a ‘step change’ in how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage.

The plan aims to eliminate 40 percent of raw sewage overflows into rivers by 2040. So that’s OK then.

The water companies can still pump out 60 percent of the current level of untreated sewage and have almost two decades to partially fix the problem. So much for the government’s ‘step change’.

Then we have the problem of water scarcity with many parts of the country suffering hosepipe bans after a prolonged dry spell.

These problems can be traced back to two things – climate change and a lack of investment.

Climate change is increasingly bringing us the kind of weather events that should have been anticipated and planned for – prolonged and heavy storms in winter and unprecedented heat and dry spells in summer.

But what we have are antiquated – in some cases Victorian – sewerage systems that can’t cope in winter (or in heavy rain in summer it seems), while a failure to build new reservoirs means there is no spare water capacity when we have a dry spell.

The last major public water supply reservoir to be constructed was Carsington in Derbyshire in 1991.

Call me cynical but it strikes me as no coincidence that we stopped building reservoirs at more or less the same time water companies were privatized.

So I have a suggestion for UU and the other water companies. How about fixing the leaks instead?

According to the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s water providers lost 2.34bn liters (515million gallons) a day through leaks in the year to March 2021 – enough to fill more than 900 Olympic swimming pools.

That was up from 2.27bn liters per day the previous year, according to the Environment Agency.

No-one should be profiting from water. It’s time to take the water companies back into public ownership.

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