- By Esme Stallard
- Climate and Science Correspondent, BBC News
Bills could rise after UK water suppliers said they were willing to spend £10 billion to fix sewage spills.
Privately owned companies have apologized for the amount of contaminated water being discharged into rivers and seas, amid growing public anger over the practice.
Some campaigners have cautiously welcomed the move, but others say companies are shifting costs to bill payers.
The industry has already paid out £1.4 billion to shareholders by 2022.
Musician and environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey called it a “half-hearted apology” another attempt to extort more money from customers.
“What I’m really hearing is not an apology for the fact that we paid them for a service we didn’t have, now they’re asking us to pay them a second time. for a service we don’t have yet,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We should have an apology for suggesting that they will raise the bill to £10 billion because of their incompetence and greed. This is not welcome.”
Companies are sometimes allowed to discharge wastewater into open water after heavy rains to prevent the system from becoming overloaded and flooding people’s homes.
But campaigners have long said these spills are happening too often. In 2022, raw sewage is discharged into rivers and seas in 1.75 million hours – or an average of 825 times a day.
Water UK, which represents nine UK water and wastewater companies, apologized on behalf of the industry for not “acting quickly enough”.
Ruth Kelly, the organisation’s president, told BBC News: “We regret the discomfort and anger caused by untreated sewage that has been spilled onto beaches and rivers over the past few years.
“We apologize for not acting sooner, but we get it.”
The companies said on Thursday they were ready to spend the £10 billion they raised from investors to tackle the problem – but admitted customers could see “modest” bills rise as companies seek to recover costs over time.
Water regulator Ofwat will review the commitment to assess the impact it could have on consumers.
Customers have seen their water bills increase by 7.5% this year. It is not yet known when any of the associated increases in wastewater investment will begin, or how the rate increases will vary across the county.
Alan Lovell, president of the Environment Agency, welcomed the companies’ apology and their efforts to rebuild public trust. “Now we want to see the action and the delivery plan clear,” he said.
Marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) welcomed the “long overdue apology” but said the investment should not be paid for through higher bills.
“The UK public has paid for protecting the environment from wastewater – but we’re not seeing it yet. And while the water industry is profitable, this investment Water UK is committed to must come. from the water utility’s profits, not from the bill payers,” said Izzy Ross, campaign manager at SAS.
Water Minister Rebecca Pow said: “The Government has set the strictest targets ever for water utilities to reduce wastewater pollution. I am pleased that they are now taking action. to make this happen – but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
The chairman of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Conservative MP Philip Dunne, told the BBC he hoped Ofwat would approve the investment plan.
“The water and wastewater industry is in listening mode and has come up with a promising plan to tackle the problem of poor water quality and take important steps to improve drainage infrastructure,” he said. old country of the country”.
Water UK says the companies are also committed to cutting spills by up to 35% by 2030 and sharing real-time data on how often wastewater spills into rivers and seas.
But this is not a new commitment, because announced by the government last month, it will be a legal requirement for water utilities by 2025.
Water UK also says companies will reduce the number of wastewater spills by up to 140,000, compared with 2020, when there were more than 400,000 spills.
However, they have been asked to cut wastewater spills by 25%, or just over 100,000 events, by 2025. This was achieved last year.
Water and wastewater services in the UK are decentralized and in Scotland and Northern Ireland provided by government-run companies, in Wales the service is non-profit. They have their own action plan to deal with sewage spills that is not covered by the Water UK notice.
Additional reporting by Jonah Fisher and Sophie Woodcock.
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