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Troubled waters

politics and planning

On 04 April, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Therese Coffey set out an ambitious policy paper, the Plan for Water. It promised to accelerate the delivery of key infrastructure projects and address the sources of water pollution, from forever chemicals to storm overflows.  

While unveiling the paper, Coffey admitted there was no clear solution or end date for the sewage pollution scandal dominating headlines. The news that sewage discharge is regularly released onto English beaches has incensed voters ahead of the local elections next month. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been quick to attack the Conservative’s record on tackling sewage spills and have not wasted time in lining up to demand Coffey’s resignation.  

This news is symptomatic though, of larger technical and governance issues facing the industry. Since 2021, political and public scrutiny of water has become more pronounced. The glaring eye of the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee recently found that Ofwat had neglected investment to keep bills low while water companies maximised financial returns at the expense of the environment. The dual pressures of climate change and rapid population growth have not been met with sufficient investment, resulting in a sewage system that cannot cope with demand, regularly expelling its waste onto beaches.  

For Coffey, the Plan for Water represents an opportunity to address these charges but also an opportunity to lay the blame at the door of our private water providers, threatening unlimited fines for companies who flout the rules. The Government’s own role in creating this crisis has not gone unnoticed though. The Plan for Water’s references to our complex and inadequate Victorian-era sewage system does little more than draw attention to decades of underinvestment and inaction to prepare for the future – an issue inherited by our private water companies back in 1989. 

The Plan for Water claims that £1.6 billion of investment has been brought forward and that almost £500 million has been ‘unlocked’ to help reverse pollution and drive infrastructure development. There are many years to catch up on, however, and it is unlikely that the Plan for Water will quell demands for a better-functioning sewer system. 

Beyond this, the public and political pressure for organisations to abide by their ESG commitments is huge. As we move into the local election period, opposition parties seem confident that the strength of feeling on this issue will be reflected at the ballot box. Conversely, the Conservatives will be hoping this plan is enough to address voter’s concerns. As Coffey pointed out on 04 April, ‘wider upgrades of the sewer network will lead to destructive works on our streets’. Large public investment will mean more planning, more consultations, and more local communities impacted, highlighting the need for effective and pragmatic community engagement, particularly on an issue this contentious.