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Water companies blasted for missing targets and polluting rivers with £150m to give back to customers
Thousands of customers with 11 water companies will see money cut from their accounts after fines of nearly £150 million were handed out by regulator Ofwat.
The action was taken after suppliers failed to meet target areas such as water supply interruptions, pollution incidents and internal sewer overflows.
Thames Water and Southern Water were the worst performers and will have to pay back nearly £80 million to customers.
It comes after sewage drains, filled with face-laden rainwater, were pumped into coastal beauty spots in southeastern England.
The two companies cover tens of millions of homes in Greater London, the Thames Valley and along the south coast, in Sussex and parts of Hampshire.
News of the fines was welcomed by Surfers Against Sewage activists, who said the penalty was a “damned indictment” of how some water companies are treating their customers.
Eleven water companies have been ordered to reimburse £150m to customers across the country for failing to meet key targets, including the amount of wastewater being pumped into seas. Depicted is sewage water flowing into the North Sea
Thames Water and Southern Water were the worst performers and together will have to pay back nearly £80 million to customers. Pictured is wastewater discharged into the Swale from nearby paper mills, Kemsley, Kent
David Black, the chief executive of the England and Wales regulator Ofwat, said ‘too many water companies are not up to standards’
Huge Tagholm, chief executive of SAS, told MailOnline: “Water companies are being forced to return money to bill payers as a result of not adequately protecting the environment.
‘They seem to be experts in pollution. They just haven’t done their job right – once again putting profit ahead of protecting our rivers and seas.
“This is a damning indictment of how they treat their customers with cash – instead of investing in solutions to end sewer pollution, protect our environment and protect all those who use clean water.” and depend on it.
“It’s about time their profits are capped until they fix the stench of their miserable performance.”
Reactions on social media were mixed.
One user tweeted: ‘£28mil is a big change but will hopefully remind @SouthernWater [their] insincere reputation is still firmly in the gutter and nothing less than large-scale change is essential.’
While another commented: ‘I’d rather they didn’t pollute in the first place. They need to clean up now…@thameswater @SouthernWater!!!’
While 11 companies have been fined, others that have exceeded their targets will be able to recover more money from customers, meaning they could see their bills rise.
Water companies told to cut costs for customers
- Thames Water £51m
- Southern Water £28.3 million
- Northumbrian water £20.3 million
- Yorkshire Water £15.2m
- Southwestern Water £13.3 million
- Anglian Water £8.5m
- Dr Cymru £8m
- South East Water £3.2m
- Affinity water £0.8m
- Hafren Dyfrdwy £0.4 million
- SES Water £0.3 million
Severn Trent Water, which supplies water to millions of people across England, performed particularly well in the regulator’s assessment and will be able to increase customer payments by £63 million over the next year.
But Ofwat noted that all companies should be allowed to raise taxes in line with inflation, using the index of consumer prices, including owner’s housing costs (CPIH) – which stood at 8.6 percent in the 12 months to August.
This means that some reductions may be offset by inflation-linked price increases on customers’ accounts.
David Black, Ofwat’s chief executive for England and Wales, said: ‘When it comes to supplying their customers, too many water companies fall short and we require them to return around £150 million to their customers.
‘We expect companies to improve their performance every year; where they don’t, we will hold them accountable.
The worst performers, Southern Water and Thames Water, will have to pay back nearly £80 million to their customers.
“All water companies need to regain the trust of customers and the public and we continue to challenge the sector to improve.”
The news comes amid intensive investigations by water companies into sewer discharges across the country, sparking anger in coastal communities in the south east of England.
On Sunday, hundreds of environmentalists took to Bexhill beach, in East Sussex, to create a human chain following a major wastewater discharge at the site.
Protesters have also taken to the streets and beaches of the city of Portsmouth over the amount of sewage dumped in and around the Solent.
The main sticking point is Langstone Harbour, where huge amounts of feces-laden discharges were previously pumped to the beautiful coastal town.
Councilor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of Portsmouth City Council, said residents were fed up.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson told MailOnline, “People here are furious. They swim in the sewer.
The release of sewage in coastal communities in the south east of England has outraged people. This discharge of untreated sewage in Bexhill, East Sussex, in August sparked a protest on Sunday, with people making a human chain on the beach.
Campaigners have demanded that infrastructure be improved to stop leaks and sewage discharges. Pictured are disused sewer pipes in Morecambe Bay
“It’s not good enough that when I go to see Southern Water, they are incredibly proud that they have only discharged 1,000 untreated wastewater into Langstone Harbor this year. They think it’s brilliant. It’s not brilliant. People swim in the sewer.’
Sewage has also been displaced on beaches in East and West Sussex, with human excrement being pumped into the sea around Littlehampton, Shoreham and Hove.
Water companies that can increase their costs
- Severn Trent Water £62.9 million
- United Utilities £24.1 million
- Wessex Water £4.4 million
- South Staffs Water £3.0m
- Portsmouth Water £0.8m
- Bristol Water £0.6m
Councilor Neil Parkin, leader of the Adur District Council – which covers Shoreham – demanded that water companies “clean up their deeds”.
Speaking to MailOnline, Cllr Parkin said: ‘It’s always the same old excuses and there doesn’t seem to be any change. It’s the ultimate groundhog day.
“The reason Southern Water gives is that if we had a big storm, houses would flood if they didn’t drain the sewer.
“Well, I’ve been chairman of the board for over 20 years and it’s always been the same excuse all along.
“It’s time for them to do something to get their acts together. They should invest a little more in the infrastructure and not give millions to their shareholders.
Ofwat’s review follows a drought and some parts of the country face a ban on the use of garden hoses during the summer heatwaves.
Mr Black said in August that targets for areas such as leaks are “challenging but achievable”, showing his concerns about the performance of some companies.
The annual targets were set by the regulator’s last price review in 2019 and will apply until the next review in 2025.
Customers should see their bills reduced in 2023 to 2024.
MailOnline has approached Southern Water for comment.
What are the current laws on water companies that discharge wastewater into rivers and the sea?
The British sewage system, still largely Victorian, cannot cope with too much rainwater, which overloads the sewers.
Under these conditions, water utilities are allowed to discharge rainwater and a smaller amount of raw sewage directly into rivers and the sea to prevent waste from accumulating in streets and homes.
But environmentalists say better infrastructure, such as storage tanks at processing plants, or nature-based solutions such as tree planting, could better address the problem, which has become excessive.
Figures show that there were more than 400,000 ‘overflows’ of sewage into English waters last year, totaling 3.1 million hours, compared to 293,000 in 2019.
The WWF has suggested that water companies “rely on sewer overflows to compensate for undercapacity.”
Wastewater is normally released into the environment after treatment, either into the sea through long sea discharges or coastal discharges, or into rivers.
The proposed amendment to the government’s environmental law had been passed into law by the House of Lords, but MPs voted to scrap it.
The amendment aimed to clean up rivers by imposing a new duty on water companies to reduce the discharge of raw sewage into rivers.