How Cuts and Privatisation Caused the Sewage Crisis

The government hopes its recent U-turn will make the public forget about the sewage crisis – but unless it reverses privatisation and cuts to environmental authorities, the problem is here to stay.

Only 14% of UK rivers are judged to be of good ecological standard. Credit: Getty Images

In Ilford, the riverbanks are now more faeces than they are dirt. In the Lake District National Park, villages flood with raw sewage as locals fear for the ecological death of historic Lake Windermere. In Ilkley, Yorkshire, the fisherman catch condoms and wet wipes instead of fish in a river that has been found in some areas to have 55 times the safe level of E-Coli bacteria.

These are just some of the stories from communities across the UK I have heard while investigating the UK’s sewage crisis. The pumping of raw sewage into the UK’s rivers and seas is far from a new problem, but in the last few weeks it has skyrocketed onto the public agenda.

The problem comes down to Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs. Normally used to dump raw sewage into rivers in emergencies during times of unprecedented rainfall, a mixture of climate change, development, and the failure of private water companies to properly invest in sewer infrastructure has meant they have been used increasingly frequently to dump dangerous raw sewage into UK waters.

The public outcry after the government refused to back an amendment to create a legal duty on water companies not to pump waste into rivers forced them into a U-turn on the issue—although many activists are cynical as to whether the government’s own version of the amendment will be worthwhile.

The impact the dumping is having on the UK’s waterways is unprecedented. In 2020, there were 403,171 raw sewage dumps into England’s rivers and seas, or over three million hours of spillages. That figure was a 37% increase on 2019, and now just 14% of UK rivers are judged to be of good ecological standard, i.e. being close to their natural state. Not a single river in the entire UK was found to have a safe level of chemicals in them, despite the government previously promising that by 2027, 75% of English rivers would be rated ‘good’.

But while much has been said of water companies’ role in failing to invest in their infrastructure, despite paying out £57 billion in shareholder dividends since their privatisation in 1991, there has been less discussion about why no-one has been holding them to account for the surge in sewage dumping.

Many campaigners up and down the country tried in vain to contact the Environment Agency (EA) when raw sewage started to damage the local environment, only to feel ignored. In one case, activists in Ilkley, Yorkshire, where Yorkshire Water had been discharging sewage for the equivalent of 77 full days across April to December 2019, were told that it would be a decade at the very least before the agency would be able to investigate. As Karen Shackleton, the founder of the Ilkley Clean River Group put it, it felt like the EA were ‘complicit’ in the crisis they were facing. ‘The data on pollution is there, and they are active and willfully ignorant in not looking into it.’

But one of the main reasons why the EA, the group tasked with protecting the UK environment and protecting the UK from water pollution and floods, has struggled so much on this comes down to the simple fact that they can’t afford to. Since 2010, the EA has been on the end of some massive budget cuts—cuts which have seen its budget slashed by nearly two thirds from £120 million to just £48 million in the years the current government has been in power. In 2013, the service fired 1,700 staff, or 15 percent of its workforce, to cut costs.

For the sake of scale, that two-thirds cut in funding is one of the highest for any government agency—far more, certainly, than the cuts to just about any of the major government ministries. Now the agency only has a couple of hundred staff dedicated to inspecting and monitoring discharges and pollution by water companies, who only make 9,000 inspections overall annually. There are 15,000 CSOs across the country, meaning they could at best only ever monitor just over half in any given year.

The impact of those cuts goes further than river pollution. Leaked EA reports earlier this year found that more than 3,400 of England’s life-saving flood defences were in such a state of disrepair that they were judged by the agency to be essentially useless. That figure only applied to ‘high consequence’ flood assets, too—defences which, if they were to fail, would pose a major risk to people’s lives and homes.

The tragic irony of it all is that cutting funding to flood defences is generally seen as a false economy. The most recent report from Association of British Insurers found that properly maintained flood defences provide a financial benefit of £568 million a year. It also found that for every £1 spent on flood defence maintenance, you save around £7 in spending or new flood defences. And while the government has announced plans to invest some £860 million into flood defence schemes this year, that’s still helping far less than the number of defences that were found to be in complete disrepair.

That reality underlines the core issue here—that every budget cut comes with a cost. Those costs aren’t just financial, in the form of post-flooding repairs or the river clean-ups and falling tourism to once pristine spots of natural beauty, but they’re also costs to the animals and human beings living there. And that impact, in the long run, is often the hardest to undo.