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Industry blames successive governments for ‘catastrophic’ sewage leakages


The trade body for the UK has blamed the latest ‘catastrophic’ figures on sewage emissions in England and Wales on successive governments over the last 30 years.

The Observer newspaper reports that analysis of data from the Environment Agency, the body that is tasked with protecting and improving the water quality in England and Wales, has found that ten firms recorded 19,484 category 1-3 incidents between 2013 and 2022 – with the most recent year recording an average of one every four and a half hours.

The news has prompted campaigners to accuse the water industry of ‘polluting the rivers and seas at a catastrophic scale.’

Andrew Race (pictured), Chairman of the Angling Trades Association (ATA), told Angling International: “The situation is alarming, but when you look at investment in the UK’s infrastructure over the last 30 years it is just a case of last successive governments – not just the Conservatives – kicking the can down the road.

“The situation has been made more acute recently with changes in weather patterns and the selling of water to investors who care little for water in a different country to theirs, but the situation was inevitable.

“As far as I am aware, OFWAT and other water authorities have advised the Government several times in the past that water prices need to go up to pay for investment, but higher water prices were deemed a political own goal.

“The aspect of high quality fish stocks and fisheries comes under the ‘Protect’ part of the ATA’s mission statement to ‘Protect, Represent and Promote the angling trade’. ATA has been promoting campaigns and working with stakeholders to add value to their efforts in highlighting the issues around water quality.”

Thames Water, which controls the London area, is said to be the worst offending company according to the Environmental Performance Assessments analysed by The Observer, recording some 3,568 incidents in that time, followed by Southern Water (2,747), Severn Trent (2,712) and Anglian Water (2,572).

The figures are likely to be an underestimate as the number and severity of sewage spill incidents are self-reported by the water companies themselves. The Observer reports that the incidents and their actual severity go unverified. The Environment Agency has faced staff shortages and major budget cuts that have forced it in the past to tell its inspectors to not investigate less serious incidents in order to cut down on costs.

The state of the UK’s rivers and seas has become a major campaign issue in the General Election.

Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, Steve Reed, told The Observer that the Conservative Government had ‘just folded their arms and looked the other way while water companies pumped a tidal wave of raw sewage into our rivers, lakes and seas.’

He said that Labour, if elected, would give regulators the power to ban bonus payments and even levy criminal charges for ‘law-breaking water bosses.’

The Liberal Democrats’ Environment Spokesperson Tim Farron, whose rural Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency is one of the 25 worst affected by sewage releases, said the issue was a ‘national scandal which has got worse and worse under the Conservatives’ watch.’

“The Conservatives’ record is one of rising sewage levels and water firms stuffing their pockets with cash,” he added. “The Liberal Democrats have led the campaign against sewage, with plans for a new water regulator, an end to ‘disgraceful’ bonuses and profits and new sewage inspectors.”

In March it was revealed that England’s privatised water firms released raw sewage for a total of 3.6 million hours in 2023, more than double the scale from the year before.

A small number of untreated sewage releases are allowed during periods of unprecedented rainfall when sewage systems are overwhelmed, but a recent BBC investigation found thousands of illegal releases in days when it hadn’t, including during a record heatwave.

A Conservative spokesperson said the Government had been clear that ‘water companies need to be held to account’ and that it had ‘introduced unprecedented levels of transparency with 100% monitoring, and applied the largest ever fines to law-breaking water companies.’

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