I guess you missed the ‘lively debate’ on Radio 4 Today this morning on the despicable state of our UK rivers. We learnt about the exploitative behaviour of privatised water companies, paying out £75bn in dividends rather than spending the £60bn required investment to fix leaks, provide adequate water treatments, plan for and build reservoices and even build then operate desalination plants.
There was a gripping six minute exchange in the debating ring that can be the BBC Radio 4 Today programme at its best. If you put Chris Packham, George Monbiot, Bob Geldoff and Ian Paisley in a blender with a pint of rain water from Northern Ireland and a splash of English Chalk River you get the 21st century Feargal Sharkey.
After several sharp rebuffs Sharkey had Mike Keil (Senior Director of Policy, Research and Campaigns at the Consumer Council for Water) agreeing that consumers could not “tolerate water companies that behaved unsustainably and damaged the environment”. Keil started out on a ridiculous PR spin learnt no doubt from nearly seven years working for Severn Trent Water. He selectively quoted ‘the good bits’ from research saying that the “Sector was not failing, customer survey, with basic water service, 91% satisfaction, but, some issues: charges, trust,
This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve caught Feargal Sharkey at his best – in full flow taking the UK water companies to task about their appalling treatment (or failure to treat) water they take from our rivers. As a teen I loved the ‘Undertones’, but not all musicians and singers keep at that task for the rest of their lives (Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones excepted).
None of us should have to tolerate raw sewage in our rivers – but the water companies far from limiting emergency outflows to flood conditions repeatedly, you could see constantly, flout the rules and let raw sewage into rivers – which lines banks and spills out into the sea.
Feargal Sharkey accused the water companies of exploitative and unsustainable practices and called on George Eustice (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to issue an enforcement order to water companies to comply with a series of exacting orders or face a fine of 10% of their annual turnover.
Mike Kiel initially sounded like an apologist for the water companies, making a deliberate and frankly ludicrous spin with the line that “Sector was not failing, that customer surveys showed that customers were 91% satisfied with “basic water service” … this is based on research he/they commission and interpret for public consumption. He is hardly an impartial observer being the product of the water industry working for Severn Trent Water for nearly six years.
Feargal Sharkey was impeccable in his response: extraordinarily reserved by saying that he took “a completely converse view” – a euphemism to me as I would have been rather more blunt and Anglo-Saxon in my response. Well versed in telling the truth to the PR spin, he explained that water companies had experienced “decades of underinvestment and profiteering by water companies”. It has been their “failure and mismanagement” which has brought this crisis upon us. Water companies, he explained, dumped sewage into our rivers for 6 million hours – that’s the sewerage issue, and now we are facing a water shortage. Water companies have given out £72bn extracted in dividends, yet they are saddled with £60bn of debt. To my ears this reads like asset stripping; running the water companies down, paying out maximum dividends, paying executives exorbitant sums and leaving far, far too little for investment in improvements – the very purpose of their existence. Feargal pointed out that between them just three senior water company executives got paid £10m between them.
It has been a catastrophe for rivers, lakes and trout streams, he explained. As a monopoly they can only be held to account by a regulator which is toothless (my words).
George Eustace, Feragal explains, has been writing letters to Sunday Papers asking the companies to behave nicely. Rather, he should (grow some balls – my words) and hold them to account.
Feargal says what we consumers should be making clear, that water “bosses should not be rewarded for failure. That there should be a link between salaries and what they deliver for people and the environment”. This is missing.
The waterworks are “about as Victorian as our roads are Roman. Water companies have a statutory obligation to build, operate and maintain sewage systems capable of effectively dealing with all of the effluent in those systems”, said Sharkey. He went on to explain that OFWAT argues that the water companies have had all of the funding required over the last 30 years to make the funding possible for the improvements that are required. Rather water companies have reduced their spend by over 40% and that is leading to the catastrophe we are now facing both in terms of sewage and water supply.
Feargal added that “London is now No.9 on a list of the 10 cities most likely to run out of water along with the likes of Cape Town, Jakarta, San Paolo and Mexico City”. We have indeed become a ‘third world country” (my words) – not thanks to the Tories, Thatcher and leaving the EU.
Water companies have paid out over £72bn in dividends; perhaps they should have spent more of that money on fixing their leakey infrastructure.
The answer according to Feargal Sharkey is that George Eustace, who has the power to issue an enforcement order, should do so – this is a clear legal instruction to the companies to do exactly what he wants and when he wants it done – any failure to comply with that instruction he then has the power to fine them up to 10% of their annual turnover.
Listen here >