Rates may rise after English water suppliers pledged £10 billion to clean up sewage incidents.
The privately held companies have issued apologies for the quantity of contaminated water they have discharged into rivers and oceans, as public outrage over the practice grows.
Some activists have cautiously greeted the move, while others claim that companies are shifting the cost to consumers.
In 2022, the industry distributed £1.4 billion to shareholders.
Feargal Sharkey, a singer and environmental activist, called it a “half-apology” and another attempt to extort consumers.
“What I am hearing is no apology for the fact that we have paid them for a service we have not received. And they are now suggesting that we pay them again for a service we have not received,” he said.
“We should demand an apology for the rumor that they will increase costs by £10 billion due to their incompetence and greed.” There is no cause for celebration.”
After heavy rains, corporations might release sewage into open water to keep the system from overflowing into residences.
However, activists have long argued that these accidents occur too frequently. Raw sewage was discharged into rivers and seas 825 times each day, or 1.75 million hours, in 2022.
Untreated sewage can spread E. coli and hepatitis to humans and animals. Swimming in untreated sewage can induce stomach bugs, respiratory, skin, ear, and eye infections, and diarrhoea and vomiting.
Wildlife, including fish and invertebrates, can develop kidney problems and perish due to sewage pollution.
Water UK apologised on behalf of England’s nine water and sewage utilities for not “acting quickly enough.”
Ruth Kelly, the organization’s chair, told, “We’re sorry for the distress and fury caused by untreated sewage overflows onto beaches and into rivers over the past few years.
We regret not acting sooner, but we understand.
Alan Lovell, chairman of the Environment Agency, acknowledged the companies’ apologies but demanded “action and a clear delivery plan.”
On Thursday, the businesses said they would spend £10 billion from investors to fix the problem. But conceded that customers may experience a “modest” rate hike as corporations recover the costs over time.
The water regulator Ofwat stated on Thursday that it would evaluate the commitment’s potential impact on consumers before its implementation.
However, the water companies have been heavily criticized for suggesting that rates could be increased to fund this investment while continuing to distribute profits to shareholders.
Since their privatization three decades ago, English water companies have distributed an average of more than £2 billion per year to their shareholders, while customers have seen their bills increase by 7.5% since April, which water companies attribute to soaring energy prices.
According to Downing Street, water companies should prioritize consumers over profits.
The deputy prime minister’s spokesman said the water firms’ repentance was welcomed, but more needed to be done.
And we’ve always been clear that we don’t want things to have a disproportionate impact on customer bills, particularly given that there are people across the country who are struggling with the cost of living, which is why we’ve assisted in that area.
Ofwat will not decide on spending plans until 2024, so it is uncertain how much extra investment could hike costs.
The marine conservation organization Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) applauded “the long overdue apology” but stated that the investment should not be paid for by increased fees.
“The British public has already paid for effluent environmental protection, but we have yet to see it. And while the water industry is raking it in, this investment pledged by Water UK must come from water company profits, not from billpayers, according to SAS campaigns manager Izzy Ross.
Philip Dunne, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee chairman, expected Ofwat to accept the investment proposal.
Last year, his group called UK waterways a “chemical cocktail” of untreated sewage, microplastics, and slurry.
“The water and sewage sector is in the listening mode and has provided a promising plan to combat poor water quality and take crucial steps to improve the nation’s aging sewerage infrastructure,” he said.
Water UK promised to cut breaches by 35% by 2030 and provide real-time data on sewage spills into rivers and oceans.
Last month, the government mandated that water firms disclose data by 2025.
Water UK said corporations would minimise sewage spills by 140,000 compared to 2020’s over 400,000.
The environmental campaign organization Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp) stated that the commitment was “meaningless” unless the volume of sewage spilled was reduced as well. Water providers must only monitor spills, not water output.
Wasp’s Peter Hammond stated on Radio 4’s Today program, “All they’re promising to do is reduce the number of spills. We still don’t know if the sewage entering the river is in trickles or tsunamis.”
In the United Kingdom, water and sanitation services are devolved, and while in Scotland and Northern Ireland. They are provided by government-run companies, in Wales they are provided by non-profits. They have their action plans to combat sewage breaches, which Water UK’s announcement does not include.