Privatisation is still causing a sting

Privatisation is still causing a sting

By Martin Read | 23/04/2021

Privatisation is still causing a sting


I'D only just completed last week's column when a programme on TV caught my eye, Panorama's The River Pollution Scandal.

If you didn't see it, take a look. It’s  on iPlayer.

The programme documented incidences of what it suggested were the water companies breaking the law by putting untreated sewage into our rivers. It went on to say that there were more than 403,000 such incidences during the last year, not all of which, I hasten to add, were illegal.

The topic is one that has interested, rather, I should say, incensed me for many years and one which more than ten years ago, when I was involved in angling administration, made my blood boil.

In fact the same thing happened as I watched the Panorama programme.

Three companies took the brunt of the programme's comments — Yorkshire Water, Welsh Water and Thames Water — but I'm sure there are others which could have been spotlighted.

It was highlighted that although such companies can, when there is excessive rain, legally pour sewage into our rivers, they also do so when excessive rain is not present (the reason for the former being that lots of rain leads to more water in the rivers, which in turn is able to dilute any adverse effects of sewage).

Of course, the problem with sewage is not a new one. Older readers will remember our local rivers years ago when such pollution was all part and parcel of life. Indeed, and just locally, even by the late 1980s Yorkshire Water had 500 sewage works which were legally entitled to pump out effluent which killed wildlife.

While the Conservative government initially turned a blind eye to this, the situation changed in 1989 when the water industry was privatised.

It was a clear plan to move the problem away from the government to the private sector and hence to the consumer.

Hatched by the Thatcher government, it had another bonus. Shares were sold ridiculously cheaply and quickly soared in price, giving investors a huge bonus. Price rises followed and we all paid for improvements, plus shareholder bonuses of course.

Two days in July 2006 demonstrated that even the lawful disposal of sewage was not without problems. Excessive rain in the Chesterfield area resulted in tonnes of raw sewage entering the River Don. Hundreds of thousands of fish died as a result.

It all went wrong because the localised rain was insufficient to raise river levels and as such the sewage was not diluted. There are numerous other incidences that could be mentioned.

Rebeca Pow, the government's Environment Minister, was quick to say during the programme that action should be taken, that the Environment (I use the word loosely) Agency have the responsibility to do so. In short, it's their problem, not mine.

The Agency did take action in four cases out of the 400,000 incidences.

In my numerous meetings with the EA, they repeatedly said that they preferred a carrot to a stick! But I have some sympathy for them because they, like others have, over the ten years of austerity been drained of resources, so much so that they now ask the water companies to monitor their own performance. Poacher becoming game keeper, you might think.

Indeed, at one point the EA admitted to having a monitoring station on the Don which continuously monitored water quality and digitally forwarded it to offices in York, but that no-one there was aware or took any notice!

I could go on and on but won't. Everyone who has any interest in rivers, fish, birds or any other aspect of the environment should watch the programme.

Your blood, like mine, will boil.