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Feargal Sharkey: ‘Water companies must pay to fix sewage crisis’

Feargal Sharkey has said private water companies should pay for upgrades to sewage networks from their profits and not get any public handouts to solve the problem of their dumping raw human waste in rivers.

The former pop singer turned environmental campaigner told the Cambridge Independent that the government and Offwat already had the necessary power to fine water companies for dumping untreated sewage and force them to upgrade their systems.

And he warned the public “should not pay a penny” towards fixing sewage networks which were “a private company’s asset”.

Feargal Sharkey (43268962)
Feargal Sharkey (43268962)

Mr Sharkey said: “The problem is the massive lack of investment by water companies over the last 30 years. And the reason that was allowed to happen was a complete failure of regulations. The question actually becomes, what on earth was Ofwat as the regulator doing for the last 30 years? They are private companies that have profited to the tune of £60billion while under-investing in these assets. Perhaps more of that money should have been spent in upgrading and maintaining their networks. The public shouldn’t be asked to pay for a penny of it.

“The public’s already paid for it. We pay to have our sewage treated and disposed of properly, and that clearly hasn’t been happening. So why on Earth would the public actually be ever asked to consider paying for it twice? They are private companies, it’s their assets, they’ve had the money, they should go and figure out how to pay for it.”

Water companies have been allowed raw, untreated sewage to flow into rivers after heavy rainfall as they say wastewater networks cannot cope with the amount of sewage and rainwater they need to carry.

Anglian Water alone discharged sewage into rivers for 170,326 hours in 2020, according to the Environment Agency. Water companies across the country did so for a combined three million hours last year.

Mr Sharkey was speaking out after the government promised to place a new legal duty on the water companies to gradually reduce the amount of sewage they discharged into rivers. It had come under fire for previously rejecting a Lords amendment to the Environment Bill that would have enforced action.

Discharge of sewage into a river (52747204)
Discharge of sewage into a river (52747204)

Conservative MPs, including South Cambridgeshire’s Anthony Browne and South East Cambridgeshire’s Lucy Frazer, were among those voting against the amendment, under direction from environment secretary George Eustice. They argued the amendment came with no considered plan on how to tackle the issue.

Amid the stinging criticism that followed, Mr Browne helped persuade the government into what Labour called a “screeching U-turn” and pledge to impose new demands on water companies.

However, Mr Sharkey called the new proposals from the government “a nonsense”.

He explained: “The secretary of state has the power to issue a direction to Ofwat ordering the water companies to start paying for it. That’s what the law says, so the question becomes, why has the secretary of state not done that at some point during the last 30 years?

“MPs were being briefed that it was going to cost between £150billion and £660billion. From experience in the commercial world, anybody gives you an estimate between £150billion and £660billion instantly has just told me they do not know what they’re talking about. It turns out when the papers from the sewage taskforce got leaked, you’re actually looking at a £3.9billion cost,” said Mr Sharkey.

“That equates to roughly two years profit by the water companies. That’s a long way from £660billion.”

An Anglian Water spokesperson said its role was to “carefully balance the needs of our customers with protecting the wider environment, all while keeping bills affordable for all”, adding: “Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) act as a necessary safety valve in old sewerage systems, to protect homes and businesses from flooding during heavy rainfall. But as our climate changes and extreme weather is now commonplace, they are no longer fit for purpose.

“We have been addressing CSOs over many years, tackling those that pose an environmental risk first, and working through the rest. The engineering solutions are not straightforward and the cost to customers is significant – to the tune of £600billion nationwide.

“The best solutions include pouring less concrete in our towns and cities, creating more permeable green spaces and using sustainable drainage systems to keep rainwater run-off from roads and buildings out of sewers. But these can only be put in place in partnership and with investment from local authorities, developers and highways, as well as water companies.

“We welcome the Environment Bill’s new provisions on storm overflows, and are keen for the Secretary of State to bring forward a plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows and reduce their impacts. We look forward to contributing to the plan with Defra, the EA and environmental groups, and the Storm Overflows Task Force to drive the progress needed.”

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Feargal Sharkey condemns failure to tackle sewage discharge into rivers

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