Whatever happened to polluter pays?

I try hard not to get political in my blog posts. I’m a floating voter (perhaps more so now than ever, given how much rain has fallen overnight!) so I don’t have a strong allegiance to any party. I call things as I see them.

It’s now been raining for 24 hours with almost no break. Using the highly scientific empty-bucket-outside-the-back-door method, I think we’ve had about two inches (50mm) of rain. It’s raining as I write this. And I know that raw, untreated sewage is flowing into a river just a few miles from where I’m sitting.

What we get from the water companies is the fact that much of our water infrastructure is Victorian. Our rainfall is increasing, and the systems were never designed for it. A major overhaul is needed. And that’s a fact. So we can feel some sympathy for the water companies.

Or can we?

Because it’s easy to forget that water, like gas, railways, and electricity, all used to be state-owned. When they were sold off, we were told it was to increase efficiency, part of the regular mantra that the private sector works better than the public one. (There is an interesting article on the economics of the sale in the Guardian) . But while that may have been true in the 1960s, I’ve worked in both the public and private sectors and I can tell you it is absolutely not true today.

raw sewage rising from a flooded drain
raw sewage rising from a flooded drain

It’s far too easy now to forget that the privatised companies knew the state of the infrastructure they were taking on when they were formed. They may not have predicted climate change, but they knew their pipework and systems were in many cases a century old.  A reasonable person would have predicted decades of substantial investment – probably the very thing that scared the Thatcher Government into selling them off in the first place. A reasonable person might have expected a very steady stream of investment to follow.

It didn’t. What we got was a steady stream of niggardly updates and regular dividends. I don’t blame the water companies. They are legally obliged to serve the interests of their shareholders and maximise their profits. A social conscience is a purely voluntary thing for any company, and investment is something you make when you have to, in order to increase your profits. No, I blame successive Governments of all stripes.

We’ve had nearly 34 years of Governments failing to enact clean water standards with teeth. Yesterday we learned that untreated sewage has been discharged into England’s rivers 825 times a day on average. That’s not the U.K. That’s just England. Today – and a cynic might note the imminent local Government elections – the Government has announced plans for unlimited fines for water companies, lifting the previous £250K cap:

In the coming days, ministers are expected to announce their plans to “make polluters pay” – addressing all pollution sources, including chemicals used in farming and plastics.

Environment Secretary Therese Coffey is expected to say that money will be levied from water company profits, and invested into improving water quality and natural habitats.

Source: BBC News Unlimited fines for water companies dumping sewage

Now I welcome this, I really do. But I have to ask whether these plans will have the same kind of rollback and dither that so many Government conservation measures have seen. Will we have a voluntary scheme, followed by a two-year consultation, followed by legislation proposed for years hence, as we have seen on other measures following lobbying from interest groups? And let’s not forget: most of the discharges the water companies make are technically legal. Without changes to the underlying legislation, only a fraction of their discharges are eligible for fines anyway. My local water company, Severn Trent,  is worth 7.28 Billion pounds. Just how high would a fine have to be to incentivise action for companies of that size?

“Polluter pays” has been a refrain for decades, but it never seems to happen. Our watercourses have been polluted for decades and are getting steadily worse. What we need are new, stricter water quality standards and a short transition period. But after 35 years of failure, I’m not hopeful.






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