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The Guardian view on Britain’s dirty waterways: a failure of industry and regulation | Editorial
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The Guardian view on Britain’s dirty waterways: a failure of industry and regulation | Editorial

A steady stream of stories about the shockingly poor state of Britain’s waterways has turned into a flood. In March, news that competitors in the Boat Race had been warned to stay out of the Thames due to sewage pollution travelled round the world. That the water industry is dysfunctional, and for years has enriched shareholders and executives at the expense of customers, is broadly recognised by the public. Anglers, surfers and swimmers have joined with environmentalists and the former pop star Feargal Sharkey to demand improvements. Polling last year suggested more than half of voters would take the government’s handling of sewage into account when deciding how to vote.

The latest warnings about the situation from Dame Glenys Stacey, the environment watchdog, are thus not surprising. But her data and analysis still have the power to shock. Under the worst-case assessment from the Office for Environmental Protection, just 21% of England’s rivers and other bodies of water will be in a good ecological state by the target date of 2027 – in contravention of the Environment Act.

While the Environment Agency estimates that a comprehensive clean-up will cost £51bn, just 12% of this funding is confirmed. Given that March’s figures for sewage discharges were the worst ever, Dame Glenys’s complaints about operators’ lack of transparency are particularly concerning. If people don’t know what is going on, it becomes even harder to do anything about it. Greater efficiency, driven by competition, was the false promise of water industry privatisation. Instead, vast profits have been extracted by owners, including the Chinese state, Qatar Investment Authority and private equity firms. Short-term financial benefits for shareholders, generated in large part by debt, have taken precedence over investment. The public interest in clean, abundant water has been placed second to the acquisition of wealth.

Just as concerning as the conduct of the industry are repeated failures of enforcement and regulation. In 2021 Southern Water was fined a record £90m for breaches. The Environment Agency’s largest-ever criminal investigation into more than 2,000 water treatment works is ongoing. But cuts have limited its capability to investigate, while Ofwat allowed water companies to become heavily financialised, opaque in structure and loaded with debt. Meanwhile, European standards incorporated into domestic law when the UK left the EU have been diluted with the postponement of water quality tests. At a time when the bloc is imposing new responsibilities on polluters, this is all the more dismaying.

What makes all this even worse is the wider context of an accelerating climate and nature crisis. Water bosses have sought to blame heavy rainfall for the overuse of sewage outflows. Yet changing weather was predicted by scientists, and the threats to wildlife from global heating make the conservation of ecosystems such as rivers all the more urgent.

While the Liberal Democrats have proposed turning Thames Water into a public benefit company, Labour’s plans for it and the wider industry remain inchoate. Ofwat is in the process of deciding whether to let water companies charge customers for new infrastructure, and under what conditions. Rightly, Dame Glenys highlights the role of local as well as national leadership. Civil society groups should keep doing what they have been doing. Water is far too important an issue to be kicked down the road – or flushed into the sewer.

Source: theguardian.com