‘Oops, sorry’ not good enough say furious campaigners as public face charge for sewage upgrades

Critics said it is a “strange way of being sorry” as customers bills will increase to pay for the planned £10bn sewer upgrade

Campaigners have slammed the “sorry” apology issued by water companies over mass sewage spills across the UK as “hollow” and “not enough”.

Mark Barrow, an underwater filmmaker at Beneath British Waters, who films sewage in UK rivers, told NationalWorld that “time will tell” if firms are serious about fixing the problem, or if the apology is “just another PR stunt to keep us silent”. But the river campaigners insist they “are going nowhere.”

It comes after water companies in England issued a “we are sorry” statement over the scale of sewage spills that have occurred in UK waters.

Water UK, which represents 25 companies, said the public was “right to be upset” about the current quality of the country’s rivers and beaches, as it admitted “more should have been done”.

The firm has now announced plans to invest £10 billion to upgrade sewers with the aim of cutting overflows by up to 140,000 each year by 2030.

But while the “long overdue” investment was hailed as an “encouraging step”, sewage campaigners say the apology is not enough as the public will have to pay towards the upgrades.

‘Sorry’ not good enough say furious campaigners over sewage row. (Photo: PA) ‘Sorry’ not good enough say furious campaigners over sewage row. (Photo: PA)
‘Sorry’ not good enough say furious campaigners over sewage row. (Photo: PA)

Greenpeace UK’s policy director Dr Doug Parr hit out at Water UK and called on the government to force companies to put the public before profits.

He said: “Cry me a river. After years of relentlessly flooding our streams and beaches with raw sewage, an ‘oops, sorry’ from the water firms won’t cut it.

“What we need to see is urgent, massive investment to upgrade their tottering infrastructure, drastic reduction in sewage discharges, and beefed-up regulators to make sure it happens properly.

“The promised £10 billion is a start but if it’s all charged on people’s bills whilst the shareholder dividends remain untouched, that would be a very strange way of being sorry.

“It should be clear by now that we can’t rely on the water firms’ goodwill to protect the health of our rivers and seas. Ministers should be all over this and force these companies to put the public’s good before shareholders’ profits.”

Elsewhere, Stuart Singleton-White, Head of Campaigns at the Angling Trust, told NationalWorld that the apology is an attempt from water firms to “cover up their failings” and said the UK needs “a system of water management that works for people, and that puts biodiversity before bonuses.”

He said bill payers will eventually have to pay for the planned investment “even though the money [water firms] have taken in bonuses and dividends (our money) was meant to be invested in not allowing this to happen.”

Anti-sewage group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) slammed water companies for overseeing “decades of mismanagement, all the while syphoning off tens of billions to shareholders and paying the fat cats at the top huge pay and bonuses.”

Commenting on the announcement about an investment to upgrade sewage systems, Josh Harris, head of communications at SAS, added: “Why should we trust them?”

‘Very strange way of being sorry’

The spending on more than 350,000 miles of sewers will come on top of the £3.1 billion already set to be spent between 2020 and 2025.

The new investment will initially be funded by shareholders in water companies but it is expected that the public will have to pay towards upgrading storm overflows through increases in their bills by regulators for years.

Martin Salter, Angling Trust Head of Policy, criticised the amount of money going into the investment, telling NationalWorld it is “pretty small compared to what the broken water sector really needs”. He added: “So much of the infrastructure is already beyond its sell by date and it will take years to deliver a wastewater system that is fit for purpose.”

Water UK chair Ruth Kelly said there will be “modest upward pressure on customer bills over the full lifetime of the asset”, meaning the public will contribute towards the upgrades for “over 50 years or perhaps even longer, maybe up to 100 years”.

Greenpeace’s Mr Parr said getting the public to pay towards fixing the sewage problem is “a very strange way of being sorry”, while Mr Barrow said he is not “prepared to pay for a huge increase” for a problem created by water companies “so they should sort it”.

Environment Agency chair Alan Lovell said he welcomes the “commitments” pledged by water firms as the industry tries to “rebuild public trust, particularly on sewage discharges.”

A detailed plan of the works will be published in the summer and Water UK said it hopes to see projects beginning this year.