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15 September 2021

The raw sewage dumped into the UK’s rivers reveals a broken model

Reckless cuts and the impact of Brexit have left rivers dangerously polluted.

By James Bloodworth

There is always a reckoning with Britain’s infrastructure after a long period of Conservative rule.

Recent Tory governments have made significant cuts to public spending. Many of those cuts will have to be reversed at some point if public services are to be sustained at an acceptable level. 

Regulation is another thing Conservative governments like to chop away at. This is usually framed as a bonfire of burdensome “red tape”. According to right-wing politicians and newspapers, this benighted material is the bane of British business, a fetter on our prosperity. 

For many years, British Eurosceptics cast the EU as the main source of this scarlet scourge. Brexit was seen as the equivalent of handing us each a pair of scissors. In 2017, a government-backed body called the “Red Tape Initiative” was enthusiastically launched in order to “grasp the opportunities that Brexit will give us to cut red tape in sensible ways”. The group was chaired by former Tory minister Oliver Letwin and featured Michael Gove on its advisory board.

Yet just four years later, the director general of that organisation, Nick Tyrone, made a rather stark admission. “The idea that there is this mountain of red tape that is holding the country back and that if we just got rid of it we’d be billions of pounds better off is nothing more than a myth,” Tyrone conceded.  

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But myths are apt to take on a life of their own. As part of its proposals to “seize Brexit opportunities”, the government recently unveiled plans to “unleash innovation” that would free businesses from “overbearing bureaucracy”. The matches had been lit and a bonfire had been started. 

Yet the flames sparked by Brexit may be spreading beyond the government’s control. In a regulatory statement published earlier this month, the Environment Agency announced a planned relaxation of the rules governing the waste material water companies are allowed to discharge into rivers. Henceforth, water companies would be permitted to release effluent – ie, sewage – into rivers even if it had not been treated to levels stipulated in environmental permits. This, the agency says, is due to “the UK’s new relationship with the EU”, “coronavirus” or “other unavoidable supply chain failures”. 

The government is telling consumers not to worry; it says the move is “strictly time-limited”, and that there are “robust conditions in place to mitigate risks to the environment”. 

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What it has not acknowledged is that water companies are unable to get the chemicals they need to treat raw sewage because the government failed to plan sufficiently for disruptions caused by Brexit. Indeed, a spokesperson for Water UK, the trade association that represents the major water companies of the UK, says the sector is experiencing “some disruption to the supply in England of ferric sulphate, a chemical used at some drinking and wastewater treatment sites”. The shortages have arisen due to “a shortage of HGV drivers in the UK”.

For its part, the government says there are “robust conditions in place to mitigate risks to the environment”, and that “any company planning to make use of this short-term measure must first agree its use with the Environment Agency, which will be checking compliance”. 

Yet to outsiders, it appears the government has inadvertently chucked some rather important “red tape” on to the Brexit bonfire. Government statements about “robust conditions” and “compliance” should set off alarm bells because the Environment Agency is an increasingly toothless beast. It lacks the resources to enforce compliance. In the name of – you guessed it – cutting red tape, the agency has seen its funding drastically reduced in recent years. Its government grant has been cut by two-thirds since 2010, meaning it no longer has the means to respond to all but the most serious incidents of pollution.  

Furthermore, even when it does hand out fines, the water companies are apt to treat them as legitimate business costs, less punitive than the price of upgrading sewage treatment facilities. In July of this year, Southern Water pleaded guilty to knowingly discharging billions of tonnes of raw sewage into the sea over a period of six years. 

[See also: UK retailers report lowest level of stock since 1983]

The Treasury-sanctioned hobbling of the Environment Agency allows the water industry to effectively regulate itself. Yet why should we, the public, trust the water companies to do that? Data recently released by the Environment Agency revealed that raw sewage was dumped into England’s waters 400,000 times in 2020. None of England’s rivers passed legal overall water quality standards in the latest assessment conducted by the Environment Agency. 

There is a strong case for taking water, a natural monopoly, out of the hands of private providers altogether. It is more than 30 years since the 1989 Water Act, which privatised water in England and Wales by selling it to private water firms for £7.6bn. Researchers at the University of Greenwich have estimated that English taxpayers spend £2.3bn more a year in water bills than they would do if the water companies had remained in public hands. Even the faithfully pro-business Financial Times has called Britain’s privatised water industry an “organised rip-off”. 

Yet industrial policy in England and Wales (water and sewerage remains under public ownership in Scotland and Northern Ireland) is governed by the prevailing winds of ideology rather than by common sense. As a recent review of British infrastructure policy put it: “After the Second World War, the answer was nationalisation and monopoly. During the period 1980-2010, the answer was privatisation and competition. The focus on these two dimensions has verged on obsession, with ideology often triumphing over analysis.”

The tendency to put ideology before analysis has also been a striking feature of the right-wing fixation on cutting red tape. Those who advocated a slash-and-burn approach were always full of crap. Now, thanks to a lack of Brexit planning and reckless cuts, so are our rivers.

[See also: Why Remainers shouldn’t mock Brexiteers over the lorry driver shortage]