Sewage spills: Customers could see rise in bills as water suppliers plan to spend £10bil to improve system

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England’s water and sewage companies said they are willing to spend £10 billion to tackle sewage spills, but this would result in increased costs.

Customers could see an increase in their bills after water suppliers in England said they were ready to spend £10 billion on tackling sewage spills. The privately owned companies have come under fire over the number of times raw sewage has been discharged into the UK’s rivers and seas.

On Thursday (May 18), Water UK, an industry body which represents England’s nine water and sewage companies issued an apology for the amount of contaminated water being discharged into rivers and seas which resulted in a nationwide campaign against them, calling them to tackle sewage pollution.

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In 2022, raw sewage was reportedly dumped into rivers and seas for 1.75 million hours - or 825 times a day on average. Ruth Kelly, Water UK chair, told the BBC: "We’re sorry about the upset and the anger from the fact that there have been overspills of untreated sewage onto beaches and into rivers over the past few years. We’re sorry that we didn’t act sooner, but we get it."

Along with the apology, the corporations vowed to boost investment for sewer system upgrades, offer "near real-time" data on sewage spills to the public, and reduce spills by up to 35% by 2030. They were also willing to invest an additional £10 billion, but this could result in increased costs.

But Environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey called it a "half apology" that was another attempt to extract more money from customers. He told the Today programme: “What I am actually hearing is no apology for the fact we have paid them for a service we haven’t got, they are now suggesting we pay them a second time for a service we haven’t had.”

He added: "We should have an apology for the suggestion they are going to put bills up by £10bn for their incompetence and their greed, this is nothing to celebrate.”

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Water and sewerage companies paid £1.4 billion in dividends to stockholders last year, up from £540 million the previous year.

Following significant rainfall, companies are occasionally permitted to spill sewage in order to avoid the system from getting overloaded and backing up into people’s homes. However, there has been criticism that these spills occur far too frequently.

Rise in bills expected as England’s water companies promise to tackle sewage spills (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)Rise in bills expected as England’s water companies promise to tackle sewage spills (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)
Rise in bills expected as England’s water companies promise to tackle sewage spills (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

Swimming in untreated sewage-contaminated water can bring significant illnesses such as stomach bugs that cause diarrhoea and/or vomiting, as well as respiratory, skin, ear, and eye infections. Sewage contamination can also cause kidney problems and death in wildlife, including fish and insects.

Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency, welcomed the apology and efforts by the companies to rebuild public trust. He said:  "Now we want to see action and a clear plan for delivery.”

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The water companies - Anglian Water, Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water, South West Water, Southern Water, Thames Water, United Utilities Water, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water - said they were ready to invest £10bn to upgrade their sewage infrastructure and also establish 100 new swimming areas.

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