UK Officials Prepare Sewage Crackdown With New Water Plan

By Bloomberg

Feb 08, 2024

image is BloomburgMedia_S8HFPIDWRGG000_08-02-2024_11-00-10_638429472000000000.jpg

A maintenance engineer works at a Thames Water incident site in London, UK, on Thursday, June 29, 2023. Britain's biggest water supplier Thames Water might need to write down 3.6 billion ($4.6 billion) of debt if the government takes over control, according to a Bloomberg Intelligence report.

The UK government is preparing to announce new measures to clean up rivers and waterways in a bid to show it’s cracking down on polluting sewage companies.

Steve Barclay, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is expected to announce an Accelerated Plan for Water, building on measures announced last April by his predecessor Therese Coffey. Before resigning in November, she put in place plans to lift the cap on how much water companies could be fined for polluting rivers and seas, and proposed banning disposable wipes that clog sewers.

An announcement on the new plan is imminent, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked to speak on condition of anonymity. One person said it may come as soon as next week, while another pointed to Parliament’s Feb. 8-19 break as a consideration.

Among the new steps laid out would be a whistleblower hotline to allow water company employees to anonymously call out wrongdoing, one person said.

Barclay has made tackling sewage spills a priority since he became Environment Secretary in November. Earlier this month, he met with water company executives to tell them that they would no longer be able to evaluate their own progress on tackling illegal river pollution. Campaigners have called for the Environment Agency to take over monitoring of water company permit compliance, a suggestion that was also welcomed by industry body Water UK.

Ministers are preparing to meet with Chris Weston, the new chief executive officer of Thames Water, the UK’s biggest water and sewage company. Thames has been at the center of a crisis that’s roiled the industry in the past 12 months, as mounting calls from the public and politicians to stop releasing sewage into waterways coincided with soaring debt costs.  

“Thames Water’s performance is completely unacceptable and they must take urgent steps to turn this around. Its customers deserve better,” Robbie Moore, minister for water and rural growth, told MPs in Parliament on Wednesday.

Moore said Thames Water is failing to meet its commitments to customers on eight of the 12 performance metrics measured by the regulator Ofwat, particularly on pollution and on ensuring a consistent supply of water.

It remains to be seen whether the new plan will take steps to curb river pollution from agriculture. Barclay’s top priorities include supporting farmers and cleaning up rivers. But agriculture and rural land is responsible for 40% of the pressure on rivers and waterways in England, according to the previous plan for water, while sewage spills account for 36% of pollution.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs declined to comment.

(Updates with no comment from Defra in last paragraph)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

By Jessica Shankleman


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