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UK Waters Full of Sewage: Let’s Flush the Failing Water Companies

Updated: Apr 23

Every year in spring, 16 rowers plus two passengers barking orders sprint along the River Thames in London. I’m of course talking about the Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race.

When you think of Oxford and Cambridge, you think of beautiful old buildings, peaceful trickling rivers, and grand libraries full of stressed university students. Both cities seem to balance elegant tranquillity with mass scientific growth, fuelled by some of the smartest brains in the world. An annual rowing boat race is exactly the sort of thing cities such as this like to compete in.


This year, however, the spotlight was on something slightly less tranquil. This is because the Boat Race may as well have taken place in a toilet.


In the week before the race, high levels of E. coli were found in the River Thames. Somewhat unsurprisingly, one of the Oxford rowers said his team had suffered with vomiting and diarrhoea ahead of the race.


Now, this story can easily be waved away as an entirely different illness – sore loser syndrome. However, the dejected Oxford losers do have a point. Prior to the race, the athletes were instructed not to swallow any water where possible, and were not allowed to follow the tradition of throwing the winning cox overboard.


Firstly, this is ridiculous guidance. Have you ever tried rowing? I went kayaking on Good Friday with a friend and, even though we’d be trounced by the Oxford-Cambridge lot, we were soaked in grimy river water from head to toe after just three miles. Telling rowers not to swallow water is like forcing sprinters to tip-toe because the track has potholes in it. It is simply impossible to avoid ingesting a gallon of water whilst rowing or kayaking.


As a result of this, surely the fact there was guidance at all suggests it wasn’t safe for the race to go ahead?


This brings me nicely onto my main grumble today. That is, companies dumping raw sewage into our rivers and seas.


First, some statistics. In 2023, there were 3.6 million hours of sewage spills – over two times the 1.75 million hours in 2022. 3.6 million hours is utterly incomprehensible to the human mind. This is because 3.6 million hours equates to over 400 years. If you live in the north west, your water company, United Utilities, essentially flooded your area with poo. They were responsible for over 650,000 hours of sewage spills alone in 2023.


We could go on and on. But none of this should be happening.


That’s why when Thames Water announced customer bills must rise by 40% by 2030 to pay for improvements, I laughed. Because if you don’t laugh, you cry.


Thames Water are making customers pay for the company’s own debt and infrastructure projects, just so it can give its shareholders more profits to keep their cash pumping in. Meanwhile, Thames Water discharged at least 72 billion litres of sewage into the Thames between 2020 and 2023.


Here we have a company charging customers more money, to then deliver those customers a product that is, quite literally, full of poo. How wrong is that?


If this was any other company in any other sector, customers would run for the hills and find someone else to buy from. When Tesco started putting horsemeat in their beefburgers, everyone flocked to Sainsbury’s. When Ferrari 458s started catching fire, I expect rich petrolheads went to Lamborghini. But you don’t have a choice over which company provides your water. You can’t just go to the shop across the road. The only way you can switch water company is by moving house – and that’s not practical.


This is the issue with private water companies – and, for that matter, private rail companies. They’re great because private ownership relieves the funding cost from the government’s cheque book and supposedly invites innovative investment. But they have a monopoly over the market in a certain area, leaving customers vulnerable to exploitation with no other company to turn to. This is where we need government regulation.


But the government has failed to enforce its own regulations. In September 2023, an independent watchdog said ministers may have broken the law in failing to stop companies discharging raw sewage into our waterways.


Why isn’t the government stopping sewage dumping? I expect because it helps water companies keep their costs down, which in turn keeps your water bills down. But it’s about time we started committing to the law.


Consequently, Michael Gove was quite right to express ‘zero sympathy’ for Thames Water’s funding crisis. As a private company, it needs to sort itself out. It needs to follow the law. If it can’t make money, it goes bust. If you think it’s too big to fail because water is an essential service, don’t let a private profiteering company provide the service – get a nationalised company to do it instead.


This is the brutal mindset we need. We cannot continue making laws like this and then turn a blind eye to companies acting illegally just because it keeps water bills down. Our water companies have to face the consequences of their actions – otherwise the government will have to pick up the pieces.


And so we reach a startling conclusion. The solution to raw sewage dumping is to make companies follow the laws we made years ago. Perhaps the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race will then live up to its lavish grandiosity, instead of being reduced to a race around a stinking toilet bowl.

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