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Why we support The Times and ‘i’ campaigns

Recently two national newspapers, The Times and the ‘i’, launched campaigns to improve the nation’s rivers and seas.

This is a good thing. It’s never comfortable for any sector to feel the detailed scrutiny of journalists – but there are three reasons why it’s really important.

First, it’s right that the state of our waterbodies gets this kind of attention. Our rivers are much better than in previous decades – but their ecological quality is still far too low, improvements seem to have plateaued, and there is little attention on public health as an objective for investment and regulation. This will only improve if water companies, agriculture, government and regulators all take action – so press attention can help accelerate progress.

Second, many of both newspapers’ goals are strongly supported by the water industry, and mirror long-standing calls from us. For example:

  • The Times called for more clean bathing water sites by the end of the decade. We set out a plan to achieve exactly this in our 21st Century Rivers report– released in 2021.
  • Meanwhile, the ‘i’ called for a “manifesto for water” based on a “robust cross-party plan”, mirroring our own recommendation that government get different sectors, regulators and departments to come together under a single plan enshrined in law via a new Rivers Act

Third, we hope that some of the assumptions and misinformation - particularly on social media - will benefit from more dispassionate scrutiny. For example, it sometimes surprises people to know that:

  • Overflows into rivers are responsible for about 4% of the reasons rivers aren’t healthy, compared with a much greater proportion from sewage works – and an even greater proportion from agriculture. We need to talk about all sources of harm, not just the most eye-catching.
  • Last year companies earned an average 3.8% profit (significantly less than other utilities), while three actually had negative returns. For the customer, this profit margin more than pays for itself because it is at the heart of a system that is based on constantly improving efficiency - saving households over £120 per year overall, and creating headroom for more investment.
  • We agree with calls to increase spending on the pipes carrying sewage – in fact, we’ve released reports asking the regulator to allow exactly that

This is why a proper public debate is so important for achieving the transformation we all want to see.

Investment, investment, investment

Inevitably, there are some claims in reporting that we would take issue with. But a key point is that water companies are poised to invest £56 billion in the biggest programme ever undertaken by industry - and one of the largest infrastructure efforts ever undertaken in England - to replumb the nation and tackle pollution from storm overflows. Companies want to invest this money – counterintuitively, it can even be in their financial interest to do so, due to how their regulation works This is on top of £14billion for seven new reservoirs, the first of which is just starting construction near Portsmouth.

It is this investment that will ultimately change things for the better – alongside action by other industries, and some policy changes by government (for example to end the scourge of littering from wipes).

The two newspapers are right to highlight the need for urgent action. There is much more to do, but water companies are determined to deliver their part. We now need government, regulators and others to make the same commitment – for example, by Defra delivering the outstanding legal changes called for by its own Storm Overflow Taskforce to accelerate the achievement of its targets.