Which UK water companies have the most leakages? How suppliers compare as bosses take home millions
As parts of England face drought and hosepipe bans water companies are losing millions of litres of water everyday through leaking pipes.
Water companies lost over a trillion litres of water through leaking pipes in England and Wales last year, NationalWorld can reveal – the equivalent of almost half a million Olympic sized swimming pools.
Despite hosepipe bans being triggered across the country, analysis of data from industry regulator Ofwat found the amount lost from leaks last year was enough to water 4.5 billion gardens for 15 minutes apiece, based on one hose pipe using 1,000 litres per hour on average.
The analysis comes as Thames Water became the latest company to announce a hosepipe ban after a summer of record-breaking temperatures led to an official drought, with rivers and lakes running dry in parts of England.
Although Ofwat and water firms say they recognise the leakage figures are unacceptable, company shareholders still took home hundreds of millions of pounds worth of dividends last year, figures from the University of Greenwich show.
In 2021, water bosses paid out more than half a billion pounds worth of dividends to shareholders, the university researchers estimate, with Northumbrian Water paying out an eye-watering £123 million, more than any other company.
Water companies have been under a wave of criticism lately as high shareholder payouts, hosepipe bans and sewage discharges dominate headlines as the effects of climate change become ever more apparent in everyday life.
It has also emerged that salaries and bonuses for the average water company executive rose by 21% this year, which equates to a year-on-year average rise per executive of nearly £200,000.
The Green Party of England and Wales has been among those calling for the re-nationalisation of the water industry, to channel profits towards investment to fix leaks.
Ofwat said leakage has been improving in recent years – but the national secretary of the GMB union told NationalWorld it was a “disgrace” that customers face a £1,000 fine for breaking hosepipe bans as private shareholders pocket millions.
Which water companies leaked the most water?
The 17 main water company providers in England and Wales all lost millions of litres worth of supply because of leaks last year, with the worst performance coming from Thames Water.
Last week the firm was condemned by residents after one of its pipes burst in Islington causing major on-street flooding and damage to properties.
Thames Water, which is connected to almost four million properties and serves the majority of London, lost 232 billion litres of water in 2020/21 – the equivalent of almost 93,000 Olympic swimming pools. Each day the company was losing 635 million litres of water due to leaks.
In terms of water lost relative to the length of piping in its supply network, Thames Water also came out bottom, leaking 20 cubic metres per kilometre of pipe.
United Utilities lost the second greatest volume of water last year at 160 billion litres, followed by Severn Trent Water with 151 billion litres. You can find out how much water your local water company lost to leaks last year in the chart below.
Water is nationalised in Scotland but leakage is still an issue. Figures sent to NationalWorld by Scottish Water show 169 billion litres were lost to leaks in 2021, the equivalent of 68,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.
How much are water companies paying shareholders?
Separate analysis produced by the University of Greenwich shows nine water and sewage companies in England alone have paid out billions of pounds to shareholders since 2010. In total shareholders have made a total of £18.9 billion in dividends since 2010 – an annual average of £1.6 billion.
Last year an estimated £531 million was funnelled to shareholders.
This does not include the companies that just supply drinking water, without handling sewage.
The University analysed annual financial reports to arrive at the figures. Researchers claimed companies were trying to conceal the true sums paid out to private shareholders, and also said they expect the current total of £0.5 billion for 2021 to climb “significantly higher” when final reports are published.
Anglian Water paid out the highest annual average with £557 million per year, followed by United Utilities with £284 million and Severn Trent with £223 million. You can use the interactive chart below to see how much your local water company paid out in dividends to shareholders.
‘Nationalise not privatise’
In its report the University of Greenwich said the Government should find a way of bringing the water and sewage systems back into public ownership to achieve greater scrutiny of services, like Scottish Water. The analysis found Scottish Water had a proven track record of higher investment and lower costs to consumers.
“No other country in the world has adopted the English system of private companies owning and running regional water and sanitation systems,” the University of Greenwich reported.
“The overwhelming majority of the world – including the USA – runs water and sanitation services through the public sector.
“Only a small minority of cities – less than 10% - subcontract private companies to run water services, always on a fixed-term contract, and under the scrutiny of an elected public authority - and the trend is away from such outsourcing. Sewerage is very rarely outsourced to private companies.”
‘Back into public hands’
Andy Prendergast, GMB national secretary, also argued that nationalising the water companies was the best way to tackle leakage and high payouts.
“It’s a disgrace that customers face a £1,000 fine as private water fat cats trouser millions, all the while failing to sufficiently tackle leakage and refusing to invest in the workforce,” Mr Prendergast said.
“Privatising water has been a disastrous failed experiment, it’s time to bring this essential natural resource back into public hands.”
‘Still not good enough’
A spokesperson for Ofwat said leakage has fallen to the lowest level since privatisation – but that performance was still not good enough.
"Over the last 20 years we’ve imposed fines, penalties and secured spending commitments totalling over £339m specifically for failure on leakage,” they said.
“This money has been used to improve performance, and where appropriate, money has been returned to customers at the expense of shareholders.
“Companies’ performance on leakage has been improving in recent years but it is still not good enough and we will keep pushing them on this issue. Where they fail, we will act to hold them to account."
‘Repairing 1,100 leaks a week’
Thames Water, which had the greatest amount of leakage in the past year, also recognised the figures were unacceptable and said it was repairing over 1,100 leaks a week.
A spokesperson said: “It’s not going to be quick, but we’re making progress and we’ve met our target for the last three years to reduce leaks by 10%. Our aim is to reduce our leakage by 20% between 2020 and 2025.”
The company said it prioritises the biggest leaks first and those affecting service to customers.
“We are repairing over 1,100 leaks per week – whether they are visible or hidden below ground,” the spokesperson continued.
“We have 160 repair teams working tirelessly to fix leaks with activity taking place seven days a week and additional teams working round the clock and mainly overnight to detect leaks not yet appearing at ground level.
“We also have an extensive capital programme to help us fix more leaks in the future. In the next three years we will spend over £55m installing dynamic pressure management helping to modulate pressure across our network for varying demands, helping reduce leakage. And in the next three years we will spend close to £200m on replacing water mains.”
‘We continue to target further reductions in leakage’
A spokesperson for Scottish Water said it was using advanced technology to predict where and when leakage might occur.
“Our leakage level last year was 459 megalitres (million litres) per day. This represents a reduction of more than 50% in leakage from 1,100 million litres per day in 2006 and is an all-time low, as we have continued to reduce the level year-on-year since then.
“In our network of more than 30,000 miles of water mains, we continue to target further reductions in leakage to prevent unnecessary waste of treated water, improve resilience of our water resources and help reduce the energy required to produce and distribute water to our customers. We work extremely hard to bring down leakage with measures including advanced technology to predict where and when leakage might occur.”