As more stories are published about the lack of monitoring of sewage dumps in UK seas, tourists being warned not to use beaches, and politicians coming under fire for voting against placing legal duties on companies to reduce discharges last year, I spoke to long-time campaigner Feargal Sharkey, about how the UK has reached this point.
With one trillion litres of water being wasted each year by the water companies, how have we got into this mess?
Well, we have allowed the EA [Environment Agency] to become totally dysfunctional. The EA needs money to function properly and now it can’t deliver on any of its promises or objectives.
We then have Ofwat, who are desperately reluctant to do anything to resolve the situation. They have had the power since 1991 to put out enforcement orders to water companies, with legally binding powers to fine water companies 10% of their annual income. If they had done this, for even the last ten years, you can bet that we wouldn’t be in this situation now.
Is the fault more with water companies or with regulators then?
There has been a huge underinvestment in the sewage system, but there has also been a great deal of profiteering and a blatant lack of oversight from water companies and regulators. When water companies have paid over £2 billion a year on average to shareholders since 1991, the accountability and transparency just hasn’t been there. We have to ask – who was in charge and allowed this to happen?
What’s your view of how Alan Lovell, the new chair of the Environment Agency can change things?
Well, it’s invariable that we will see big announcements next month. This will probably tie in with the government’s own plan to tackle sewage discharges which was due to be published next month as well, but will now come out in ‘due course’ and has been shelved indefinitely.
Alan Lovell will have one hand tied behind his back and his feet shackled together for a number of reasons. The board members of the EA are public appointees, with the power of hiring and firing landing with George Eustice [secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs). This board has been incompetent, as it has allowed this situation to develop.
So, will Eustice allow Lovell to replace board members? We’ll just have to wait and see.
There is a code of conduct for board members that they have not been held accountable to, and the silence from Eustice has been conspicuous on the sewage scandal.
I am alarmed though about his recent ‘laying the groundwork’ last week on Sky and BBC, where he was talking about the dangers of a dry winter and drought continuing into next year, with the possibility of London being under water rationing next spring. We need a period of sustained above-average rainfall every day for the next few months, in order to alleviate and mitigate against the drought situation, but we all know what happens to our dysfunctional sewage system when it rains.
So, it’s a rock and a hard place. Do we accept five more months of sewage flowing into rivers and seas, in order to avoid a spring drought?
How do you see the upcoming winter then?
Oh, we are walking into an economic crisis this winter, with energy prices going through the roof. It’s a simple answer – when Lovell goes to the Treasury to ask for more funding in the tens of millions, or hundreds of millions, to actually improve the current situation, there is no way that the money will be forthcoming.
So, what are the next steps?
Everyone knows what’s fair. We’ve reached a point where this has now taken on a life of its own. The public can see beyond the rhetoric. There’s a lesson of accountability and responsibility for Ofwat and the EA, with Christine Farnish’s [board director of Ofgem] resignation last week over the energy price cap. High-level resignations will demonstrate to the public that the government takes their concerns seriously.
The next move belongs to the government, the water companies and Ofwat. This time though, we are all watching.