A Tory minister has claimed the government rejected an amendment to stop water companies dumping raw sewage because of “the vast cost of what was being proposed”.
The House of Lords this week kept the pressure on the government to write into a law a duty on water companies to minimise the discharging of sewage into rivers and seas.
Peers backed a proposal to place a new legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent sewage discharges, after an 11th-hour U-turn by ministers, who promised they wold table their own amendment to the environment bill.
The Commons last week rejected a raft of changes made to the Bill by the upper chamber, including placing a new legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent sewage discharges.
Water companies released raw sewage into rivers more than 400,000 times last year via storm overflows – over more than 3.1 million hours.
‘The vast cost’
And ministers have insisted that reducing the discharges could cost up to £660 billion – a claim that was echoed by Lucy Frazer, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in an appearance on Question Time on Thursday night.
She said: “The reason the government didn’t accept the amendment which went through the House of Lords is just the vast cost of what was being proposed, which ran into billions of pounds.”
A host of Tory MPs quoted the same figures last week in conversations with constituents, suggesting it would be irresponsible for government to spend so much money transforming the sewage system.
But experts poured scorn on the figures, with the Angling Trust suggesting a lower-cost options could be priced at as little as £3.9 billion – adding between £19 and £58 to water bills each year.
Hugh Tagholm of the campaign group Surgers Against Sewage told The Guardian: “The figures are somewhere in the region of between £3.7bn and £62.bn to deal with the worst of the sewage pollution. This is well within the profits and dividends of these companies and if it were to be passed on to the bill-payer, it could be done at an affordable level.”
And it emerged last year that English water companies have handed more than £2 billion on average to shareholders every year since they were privatised three decades ago.
Dividends to shareholders of water companies between 1991 and 2019 amounted to £57 billion – nearly half the amount spent on maintaining and improving the country’s pipes and treatment plants in the same period.
Directors’ pay has also soared. The earnings of the nine water companies’ highest-paid directors rose by 8.8 per cent in 2019, to a total of 12.9 million. The highest paid CEO was at Severn Trent, taking home a salary package of £2.4 million.
By contrast, Scottish Water – which is publicly owned – has invested nearly 35 per cent more per household in infrastructure since 2002 than the privatised English firms, charging 14 per cent less and not paying out dividends.
Related: English water firms have handed £57 billion to shareholders in the 30 years after privatisation