Public to pick up ‘a lot’ of the cost to fund £10bn sewer upgrades through bills, Coffey admits

The Environment Secretary confirmed customers will see their bills go up, but fines private water firms are ordered to pay could see bill-payers reimbursed

Consumers will have to pick up “a lot” of the cost towards upgrading the UK’s sewer networks through their bills, Therese Coffeey has admitted.

Water companies in England last week announced a £10 billion plan to reduce the number of sewage discharges into rivers and seas after issuing an apology for the pollution.

Industry body Water UK said the public was “right to be upset” about the current quality of the country’s rivers and beaches, while also admitting “more should have been done”.

But the “we are sorry” statement was met with fury from campaigners who were incensed that the proposals involve the public being given higher bills to pay back the investment.

The Environment Secretary said she was “pretty fed up” with water companies, but argued “a lot of” private sector investment in the water industry “gets repaid through bills”.

Public to pay ‘a lot’ of the cost to fund sewer upgrades through bills. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images) Public to pay ‘a lot’ of the cost to fund sewer upgrades through bills. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
Public to pay ‘a lot’ of the cost to fund sewer upgrades through bills. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Coffey called on water firms to have an action plan for “every single storm overflow” on her desk by the end of next month.

Following last week’s announcement Anglian Water confirmed its customers will have to pay £91 more on their bills every year, including £12 to help pay for the £10 billion plan.

But Coffey said penalties and fines that the private water companies are ordered to pay could see bill-payers reimbursed.

She told the Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme that England has a better record of dealing with sewage overflows than other countries.

She said: “Frankly, we would not even know about this if it wasn’t for a Conservative government insisting on the monitoring and the publication of that data.

“We’re not seeing that in Scotland. And frankly on average, the frequency of sewage flows is happening far more in Wales than it is in England.”

When told that the European Environment Agency ranked UK bathing waters the worst on the continent, Coffey insisted that was “not true”. She said: “We now have 92.9% of our bathing waters designated good or excellent — that was last summer. That’s up from 70% in 2010.

“There has absolutely been investment and work to make sure that our bathing waters are getting cleaner and cleaner.”

Anti-sewage campaigners were “outraged” at the prospect of customers paying higher bills to help with the upgrade of sewers. Sewage activist Caroline Quaife who joined environmental group Surfers Against Sewage nationwide protest in the Staffordshire location on Saturday (21 May) told NationalWorld “it is outrageous that water firms should take £60 billion in profits then ask for £10 billion from the public purse.”

She added: “It makes me really angry. And it makes me angry that we have a government that thinks that’s okay.”

Mark Barrow, an underwater filmmaker at Beneath British Waters, who films sewage in UK rivers, said he is not “prepared to pay for a huge increase” for a problem created by water companies “so they should sort it”.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have called on Coffey to issue her own apology for the number of sewage discharges being permitted.

The party’s environment spokesman Tim Farron said: “While the water companies have apologised, Therese Coffey has still failed to.

“She oversees a government that continues to let water companies dump outrageous amounts of sewage into our rivers.”

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