England has a serious problem with its water companies. Our water bills have increased by 43% (in real terms) since 1991, when these companies were privatised – much of that money going straight into the pockets of shareholders. Over £100 of your household’s annual water bill is used to pay shareholder dividends2 – at the expense of the investments in infrastructure that we need to fix leaky pipes and fight sewage pollution. We can also thank privatisation for the fact that more than 70% of our water industry is now in foreign ownership3. Northumbrian Water is, for example, mostly owned by (Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing’s) CK Hutchison Holdings Limited, a company which Ethical Consumer magazine criticises for its use of tax havens and scores 3 out of 15 for its ethics4,5.
Data for England shows that known sewage spills increased 29-fold between 2016 and 20216. This is partly because of better monitoring of storm overflows, but our ageing sewage system, growing population and heavier and more frequent storms undoubtedly play their part as well. Environmentalists also accuse the water companies of allowing sewage spillages during periods of dry weather, when such actions are both unnecessary and illegal.
Northumbrian Water’s latest Environmental Performance Assessment data generally shows progress in the right direction7, and last year’s Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) data tells us that their storm overflows are not only monitored more closely than is typical of other water companies but are also responsible for fewer (and shorter) sewage spills8. Northumbrian Water’s staff have also been extremely helpful when I’ve struggled to understand the data.
But with 36,483 sewage spillages (totalling 220,560 hours) last year8, Northumbrian Water must do better. But what can be done? Well, data that tells us which spillages were of treated and which of untreated sewage would be a start. Next, we need spillage data to be presented alongside rainfall and flow rate data that allows us to see for ourselves whether a discharge was lawful. We also need to divert shareholders’ dividends into infrastructure improvements, limit the amount of debt that water companies can accrue (it’s mostly used to pay dividends2), close legal loopholes that allow water companies to pollute, be able to impose unlimited fines for illegal discharges and to be able to hold company bosses accountable for transgressions – all of which would be possible if the water companies were nationalised. We must also fund the Environment Agency more generously, so that it can afford to enforce environmental law.
What action can we take on a local level? Well, we should lobby our MP. But at the next general election we should also be careful not to re-elect an MP that voted against stopping the dumping of raw sewage into our rivers:
 The rest of Northumbrian Water is owned by KKR, an American investment fund which Ethical Consumer also criticises for its use of tax havens and scores only 2.5 out of 15 for its ethics (https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/company-profile/kkr-co).