Double the sewage, triple the stink

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The water companies just can’t keep out of the news. The figures for sewage discharges for 2023 were issued last week by the Environment Agency. It’s been a wet year, but has it been doubly as damp as 2022? All sewage overflows have at last been fitted with monitors, and it’s clear that twice as much raw sewage and rainwater has gone into our rivers and the sea this year as in 2022. Discharges into the Stour and its tributaries are significantly up. Wessex Water is spending £3m per month on upgrades, with work continuing at the sewage works in Gillingham and further work planned at Bourton. These investments are welcome, but we are paying for it. Wessex Water has raised bills by 12% this year. If its plans to triple the spend on sewage treatment improvements are agreed this year by the industry regulator OFWAT, we will see bills rise dramatically over the next few years – by up to 50%.
The whole industry has been too slow to respond. The Economist newspaper noted that in 2021 the Storm Overflow Discharges Taskforce – a group of conservationists, consumers, the agriculture department, the Environment Agency and water industry bodies – concluded that investment to prevent sewage discharges was not worth the tens of billions of pounds it would cost. Meanwhile, Surfers against Sewage, countless local campaigns and political parties like the Liberal Democrats continue to push hard to change this stinking state of affairs. But where is the haste to fix it? The current government will still allow sewage spills to continue beyond 2040.

Constructive plan needed
OFWAT has demonstrated its toothlessness. The Environment Agency lacks the resources to monitor effectively, police the spills and penalise the spillers. Here in Dorset, we understand that Wessex Water performs better than most other water companies. Yes, governments before privatisation spent hopelessly little, but that does not mean the present system is right either. The water companies have run up excessive debt to pay holding company dividends and many are now in deep financial trouble. Little will happen as long as the industry structure and the way it is regulated remains unchanged.
We need positive, constructive measures to be put in place to solve the whole challenge of river and sea pollution. This must involve the water companies, agriculture, transport, house building and construction interests, all working together. The next five-year asset management plan period (AMP8) for water companies will start in April 2025. A new government needs to review and change how water utilities are run, to ensure a rapid end to sewage dumping and better value for bill-payers. Liberal Democrats will be down and dirty, campaigning to staunch the sewage flows and their costs.
Gary Jackson
North Dorset Liberal Democrats

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