Water firms issue ‘sorry’ statement over sewage spills as public set to pay for overflow upgrades ‘for years’

The industry body has pledged to invest £10 billion this decade into the biggest modernisation of sewers “since the Victorian era”

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

Industry body 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, and admitted “more should have been done”.

Water UK has now announced plans to invest £10 billion for the biggest modernisation of sewers “since the Victorian era”, which aims to cut overflows by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared to the level in 2020.

The plans also include new facilities to hold surges in rainwater, increased capacity for sewage treatment works and measures to reduce rainfall entering sewers.

New facilities will fix misconnected pipes from properties and an online hub will be launched next year to give the public almost live information on overflows and the state of rivers and coastal waters.

Water companies issue ‘sorry’ statement over sewage spills. (Photo: Getty Images) Water companies issue ‘sorry’ statement over sewage spills. (Photo: Getty Images)
Water companies issue ‘sorry’ statement over sewage spills. (Photo: Getty Images)

Companies also pledged to support up to 100 communities in creating new protected water for swimming to squash anger over the amount of sewage being spilled into UK waterways.

Ruth Kelly, chair of Water UK, said: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear – we are sorry.

“More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.

“We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”

But Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has slammed the apology and plan for not going “far enough” as called on environment secretary Therese Coffey to also say sorry.

He said: “For years water companies have arrogantly dismissed the public’s fears of rivers, lakes and coastlines being damaged by sewage discharges. This announcement does nothing to match the billions water firms have paid out in dividends to overseas investors, or stop their CEOs being handed multimillion pound bonuses.”

Environment Agency figures earlier this year showed there were a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day.

In March the public were told to avoid 83 beaches across the UK by anti-sewage campaign group Surfers Against Sewage after raw waste leaked into the waters, with one alert applied to TripAdvisor’s named best beach in the UK, Gorleston-on-Sea in Norfolk.

‘Public set to pay for sewer upgrades for years’

The spending on more than 350,000 miles of sewers will come on top of £3.1bn 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.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Thursday (18 May), Ms Kelly said: “Over time, the way the system works is that there will be modest upward pressure on customer bills over the full lifetime of the asset, so over 50 years or perhaps even longer, maybe up to 100 years, customers do contribute.

“This is an investment programme that will go on for years. We literally want to do this as fast as is physically possible.”

Musician and environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey said the apology from companies and upgrade plans are “nothing to celebrate” as customers are now left having to “pay them a second time” to clean up the country’s rivers.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “What I’m actually hearing is no apology for the fact we’ve paid them for a service we haven’t got. They are now suggesting that we should pay them a second time for a service we haven’t had.

“We should have an apology for the suggestion they are going to put bills up by £10 billion for their incompetence and their greed.

“This is nothing to celebrate whatsoever. What they should be saying is, ‘we messed this up, we’re terribly sorry, we’re going to compensate you all, £10 billion, it is the least we could do for our customers, give you a refund’.

“That we could all get behind. This is just another outbreak of moral panic due to the pressure and scrutiny they are coming under.”

Meanwhile, Yorkshire Water sent out a separate apology in a letter to customers and promised to invest £180 million in reducing discharges from storm overflows over the next two years.

It said it has earmarked 190 storm overflows for improvement and that the works will be “partly funded by shareholders”.

A spokesperson for Ofwat, the water regulator, said: “We welcome the apology from water companies and this now needs to be turned into action.

“We have been pushing water companies to do more, faster, for their customers and for our waterways and beaches. We look forward to seeing the plans and how companies will step up performance.”