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Before we vote.

Clanfield - an underinvestment scandal exposed by meticulous local campaigner Philip Barnett, WASP the force behind Clanfield Residents Against Pollution.

The truth about the sewage scandal

In the lead-up to the General Election, WASP aims to ensure that there is a well informed debate about the state of rivers in Oxfordshire, and the national policies and actions of water and sewage companies and regulatory agencies that have contributed to the current crisis.

That means we will call out misinformation when we see and hear it.

WASP will comment on the commitments and policy positions of local candidates and national parties. We will also provide briefings on key issues that will face the new government after the Election.

We will stick to Charity Commission guidance on political campaigning.

Our statements are based on checkable sources referenced where possible in the blog.

First up - MP - now Conservative Candidate, Robert Courts and his email to constituents.

In an email sent on 25th May to constituents who had raised issues about river pollution and sewage, Mr Courts made several statements that are factually inaccurate or potentially misleading.

We have covered some or all of this with him before and once again, we have

written to him to point this out and to offer accurate information to his audience.

We say, by all means, argue the case for privatisation and defend allegations of a weak response, but please let's stick to the truth. People deserve and need honesty and accurate information if the country is to escape the sewage crisis.

Here is our letter. It's a four-minute read.

Correction to RC May 2024 letter.
Download PDF • 222KB

Here is Mr Courts' message to constituents.

May 2024 Sewage update - RC
Download PDF • 194KB

You can either read the letter or the more detailed corrections that follow - or both.

The statements we challenge are quoted in RED

“Our sewage system was laid out in Victorian times. It is a “mixed” system, meaning that

rainwater & foul water are drained & processed in the same network of pipes and treatment works” -

In reality? Sewage treatment was developed and expanded by the Victorians, but to claim our system was 'laid out' when the population in Britain was around 32.5 million and the population of Witney was a mere 5,072 is grossly misleading. Most development was post-war and a lot of sewage infrastructure is at the end of its lifespan or well beyond.

The big news here is this - Only 12% of sewers in England, and 20% in the Thames Water region (which includes big inputs from London) date from the Victorian period.

WASP covered this is in a blog in September 2023 and it was reported in the national press, yet still the myth is repeated.

As for the combined system - According to information provided by Thames Water to Ofwat in 2023-24 only 9.5% of sewers in the region combine rainwater and water.

Let's also remember how well the Victorians built with future need in mind unlike the post war solutions that are now failing

The statement creates a misleading impression that current problems reflect

an inevitable long-term inheritance rather than in reality being the result of failures of the policy and regulatory system.

“The truth is the fact that it has got to this stage isn’t really anybody’s fault: it’s just gone on

for decades” Unbelievable - because it's not true.

It is correct that successive governments have failed to address weaknesses in the

regulatory system of privatised water in England and Wales, created by the

Margaret Thatcher's government in 1989. However, this does not mean it is “not anybody’s fault”. There is ample evidence to demonstrate:

  1. The failure of the UK government and the Environment Agency to adequately enforce environment regulations and license requirements, for example as found by the Office of Environmental Protection.

  2. The failures in the regulatory model as implemented by Ofwat 2 - which has also been described by the water companies as creating a “labyrinthine framework of intense complexity”. privatisation-model/

  3. Deliberate breaking of the law and flouting of license conditions by Thames Water and other water companies because it was more profitable to pollute, as reflected in fines imposed by Ofwat.

  4. the decisions by water companies to take on excessive and unnecessary debt to fund dividends.

Ofwat, The Environment Agency, Defra, a succession of Environment Ministers and a succession of water company senior executives and Board members therefore share the blame for the current situation.

Reference, for instance the critique by Professor Sir Dieter Helm of the University of Oxford:


The sewer that burst to kill almost every fish in the River Ray near Swindon was past its useful life and had been failing. The decision to not replace it was not an accident - it was a commercial choice. An investigation is pending.

The vote - The allegations previously made in the media is that Conservative MPs 'voted to dump untreated sewage'. We agree this is a brutal assessment and may not have been how the government sold it to the MPs it ordered to vote against the so called 'Wellington amendement'. Most, but not all MPs complied and the amendment failed. This was Mr Court's explanation.

“The amendment [proposed to the 2021 Environment Act] … would have made bill payers liable to pay to transform a Victorian system that would cost anywhere between £150 to £650 billion”

The facts are these.

The amendment referred to sought to establish a “Duty on sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”, specifically through requiring that:

“A sewerage undertaker must demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges.

The Secretary of State, the Director and the Environment Agency must exercise their respective functions under this and any other Act to secure compliance with this duty.”

The figures quoted by Mr Courts appear to be based on those presented in a report, financed by the water industry, which is based on an estimated cost for the complete separation of wastewater and stormwater systems. These figures therefore grossly overestimate the plausible costs of meeting the specific requirements of the amendment.

The list of options - some of which now look like better value than the bill hikes being proposed by Thames Water and others, can be found here in full.

'Investment' - it's in inverted commas for a good reason.

Mr Courts wrote -

“Since privatisation, the water industry has received over £200 billion of investment through private finance which it would not have seen under a taxpayer funded, nationalised system.” This is a total myth that must be debunked.

It is misleading to contrast the England and Wales model of privatised infrastructure (which no equivalent country in the world has adopted) with a “tax payer funded, nationalised system.” In Europe and North America, most water and sewerage systems are under municipal or other local government ownership and are able to raise low cost, long-term funding that is secured on future bill payments – they are not dependent on the “tax payer.” It is therefore misleading to imply that expenditure has depended on “private finance” since plausible alternative financing models have been available.

Prior privatisation water rates were charged, depending on the size of the household.

As a report in the Financial Times (April 15th 2024) noted, quoting recent research by renowned economist, Prof David Hall:

“The 16 water monopolies have paid out a total of £78bn in dividends in the 32 years between privatisation in 1991 to March 2023 … The £78bn payout is nearly half the £190bn the companies spent in the same three decades on infrastructure

The utilities meanwhile chalked up more than £64bn net in debt over the same period, despite being sold at privatisation with no borrowings.” (Note - the £85.2billion referred to in the letter to Mr Courts includes the additional extraction of equity).

The excessive and unnecessary accumulation of water company debt that has been the main result of the private finance arrangements in England and Wales has not contributed to investment but instead has funded dividends.

Recent analysis of Thames Water accounts undertaken for WASP has also shown that there has not been a single year since privatisation when net equity investment into Thames Water has been positive. (WASP Blog)

So there has been no net shareholder contribution to financing expenditure.

The regulatory system has therefore resulted in higher investment costs than alternative plausible financing models would have done while saddling companies with debt that cannot be financed without excessive price increases for customers.

“While the current system is by no means perfect, the situation is significantly better than it would have been under a nationalised system” This is a baseless claim.

This statement is not supported by evidence or international experience. Public ownership certainly does not guarantee efficient or accountable performance. However, there are numerous publicly owned water and sewage systems, including in Europe and North America, that have successfully financed investment at low cost and without creating an excessive debt burden, and while achieving better environmental standards, than has been the case in England and Wales, and the trend in Europe and North America has been towards the re-municipalisation of water and sewerage.

Sherborne near the Brook - 34 years into privatisation.

We hope that's helpful - If you see conflicting stories and don't know what or who to believe about the water industry and regulation, write to WASP on and we will do our best to answer, with the evidence to support our replies


5 commentaires

Dana Josephson
Dana Josephson
2 days ago

Very many thanks for writing a fair and even-tempered refutation of so much that was in Courts's contentious circular. His record on sewerage is already weak; he should not have stooped to untruths and misleading statements. Courts should now reply fully, accurately, and publicly, to WASP's points; but he has already shown himself to be not up to the job of representing his constituents against Thames Water.


3 days ago

Thank you SOmuch to the WASP team for your exacting work on all our behalf. This highlights the point that politicians of most flavours do not apply the same ‘scientific’ rigour to their briefs as you do.

Please keep pointing to the truth. Yours most sincerely, Jane Brylewski.


4 days ago

Huge thanks to Peter Hammond, Ash Smith, and all the other volunteers at WASP for playing a very large pqart in bringing the water industry scandal to national prominence.


4 days ago

Thank you for all that information which clearly destroys all the flannel we’ve had from Robert Courts. Not good for my blood pressure though!


mick saffrette
mick saffrette
4 days ago

A massive thank you to Ashley and all WASP members for telling the truth about the state of Oxfordshires rivers. I would be interested how Mr Courts expains the misleading statements, half truths and to be honest down right lies. It's what we have come to expect from this current Government. The upcoming election is a chance to get an MP who really cares instead of someone saying the right things but doing nothing.

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