April 14, 2024

Thames Water has risked a fresh backlash over its commitment to tackling sewage dumping after it declined to commit funds to a £180m industry-wide initiative to fast-track efforts to reduce pollution in England’s waterways.

The government said on Monday that the sum would be spent by six companies over the next 12 months to prevent more than 8,000 sewage spills, as water companies attempt to address their woeful record on tackling spills.

However, Britain’s biggest water company, which has a £14bn debt mountain, has not taken part in the drive and it is understood that government officials are disappointed in its refusal to do so.

The Guardian understands that Thames Water, which plans £18.7bn of investment between 2025 and 2030, has said it is unable to accelerate its investment despite the government request.

Thames Water’s finances are already under close scrutiny after it emerged that its parent company had been warned by its auditors that it could run out of money by April if shareholders do not inject more cash. It needs to repay a £190m loan due next month.

Last month it was reported that to try to ease its financial woes, Thames had been lobbying government and regulators to let it increase bills by 40% and lower fines for breaches related to sewage spills. Contingency plans have been put in place in government in case Thames Water collapses.

The companies that agreed to the government’s fast-tracked investments include Anglian Water, which will invest £50m by April 2025. United Utilities will spend £39m and Severn Trent £41m by that date.

Southern Water will invest £10m, South West £32m and Wessex £8m.

The government said Northumbrian and Yorkshire Water had separately already announced plans to bring forward tens of millions of pounds of investment to tackle storm overflows this year.

The investments will cover the installation of more in-sewer monitors; extra staff in wastewater teams; artificial intelligence systems to manage storm water loads; and accelerated wetland programmes.

The latest cash from water companies will come on top of the £3.1bn planned investment into storm overflow improvements between 2020 and 2025 as the industry attempts to make up for decades of under-investment in Britain’s ageing infrastructure.

In a letter sent to all water bosses in December, the environment secretary, Steve Barclay, told companies to go “further and faster” to fix networks to tackle high-spilling overflows.

Water companies have faced widespread public anger over their repeated sewage spills across the country, with the Environment Agency recording more than 300,000 spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day.

Thames Water, which has 16 million customers, has been one of the worst offenders, with analysis last year revealing that it had pumped at least 72bn litres of sewage into the River Thames since 2020 – the equivalent of 29,000 Olympic swimming pools. It has also been hit with £35.7m in fines for pollution incidents by the Environment Agency between 2017 and 2023.

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Ministers hope to crack down on poor sewage performance by water companies, and last month announced a plan to ban bonuses for bosses who fail to prevent illegal sewage spills.

The government has said it will put extra money into the Environment Agency so that it can quadruple the number of inspections of water companies next year.

Barclay said the £180m investment was part of government efforts to “push for better performance from water companies and hold them to account”.

He added: “The amount of sewage being spilled into our rivers is completely unacceptable and the public rightly expects action. This money will mean more cutting-edge technology, including artificial intelligence, and more specialist staff to detect and reduce spills.”

Thames Water declined to comment.

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