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Boss number 5 - more lawbreaking?

We are on the fifth Thames Water CEO since WASP was formed in 2018 if we count the recent interim duo as one.

One of the stand-out features of the big 10 monopoly companies that serve England and Wales' drinking water and sewerage needs is that they all break the law and all seem to have normalised it as part of their business models but it's not normal - it is illegal.

How this came about has been covered by us before so in this blog we are looking specifically at individual Director's liabilities - especially the CEO.

The new Thames Water CEO is Chris Weston and the company lists two of his skills as 'improving customer service' and 'working in regulated environments', so he should understand the importance of complying with the law.

From Thames Water's website

Sewage works don't just start failing and operating illegally and it's nothing to do with the Victorians or any other convenient scapegoats. Think of a car owner who fails to service it, maybe the tyres wear out but doesn't replace them. Some owners forget or make mistakes, then get things fixed, but others are criminal chancers who know they probably won't be caught and if they are, the fines will likely be less than the cost of all the maintenance they decided not to do over the years. Yes, they risked other people's lives ignoring laws enacted to protect them but this is all about profiting by breaking the law. Think of the water companies in the latter category.

Let's pause here and make it very clear that we are not criticising the staff at the sharp end of the business, trying desperately to stop overflows by overworking sewage processes and risking failures that could get them into trouble - they should not be placed in that position by company Directors, but they are.

Staff are trying to eke out the best they can from sewage works that are simply under capacity - and that is a corporate choice by Directors, not an accident.

Sewage works operate illegally, generally, either because they have inadequate capacity or their sewer network allows groundwater to leak in excessively to overwhelm the system and cause long periods of sewage dumping, even in dry weather conditions - think Witney, Fairford, Clanfield, Bourton on the Water and a list so long, we may all drop off to sleep reading it so we won't go there.

These problems arise and persist due to companies deciding not to address them by spending billpayers' money that they may then divert to shareholders as dividends and 'other payments'. Boards of Directors know that due to the spectacular failure of the regulators; Ofwat and the Environment Agency (EA), the companies are highly unlikely to be prosecuted and if they are, it will take 4 - 5 years and will result in a fine, even a very big one, that is still far less than doing the job properly across the company. By the time court cases come around the CEO may be employed somewhere else but the Agency will in any event certainly not trouble them about their personal criminal liabilities or recover ill-gotten bonuses.

The EA has never prosecuted water company Directors, although it has prosecuted plenty of waste company Directors that the Agency seems to treat as common criminals, while people doing the same sort of thing but making much more money for water companies are treated with a bizarre deference.

The Agency has often recovered unlawfully made waste company profits via the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 - as suggested by WASP for water, on many occasions.

All of this brings us around to asking the same question that we asked the new CEO's predecessor, Sarah Bentley when she arrived back in 2020 -

What is his position on breaking the law? - Will he do it to serve the shareholders and pick up his salary and bonuses or will he bring polluting illegally to an end?

Sarah's answer, broadly, was that the important thing was doing right for our rivers, not the law. We disagreed because we knew that the company would never do the right thing for anyone but the shareholders unless we had a way to force it to - which is why we have such laws after all.

Will Chris Weston continue to make and reaffirm corporate decisions to allow company assets and infrastructure to break the law when spending money would fix the problem, but would probably diminish shareholder returns and his own spectacular and, we say, totally unjustifiable bonuses and salary?

Companies have been able to fix failures without Ofwat approval, since 2014, the bosses of the Economic Regulator told us, and although Thames Water may claim that they are not given the funding, we point to the 108 funded projects* for 2020 - 2025 including the upgrade of Fairford sewage works that Thames Water was paid for by the customer - but failed to deliver and pushed back to the next 5year spending period 2025 -30, with no guarantee that they won't simply repeat the same old trick.

BBC story of Fairford's long term failures and the latest delay in fixing it. Would this happen if a CEO was held liable for it?

Where did that money go, by the way? That's another story.

We also added a question about compromising our drinking water supply through pollution.

This is the letter we sent on 12th January and so far we have not had any form of acknowledgment but we imagine that the company lawyers may be advising Mr Weston on his answer.

Final comment.

This is not a joke, it is not a frivolous dig at the new boss. Big money (over £72 billion since privatisation) has been made by companies run by real people behind huge numbers of illegal pollution offences, while financially engineering businesses like Thames Water to the edge of financial collapse. The reason? - to extract as much money as possible from a vital part of one of the country's essential services, while delivering a failing and even illegal service in plain sight.

We need a government to take control of this blatant scam, not find ways to protect exploitative shareholders and prolong it to 2050 and beyond.

More than two years after the Environment Act was heralded to be here to fix it, the system remains a failure, rotten to the core.

This has gone on for too long and we need intelligent and effective action, now.

Plans for how? that's another blog.

  • source of information re 108 projects delayed - Thames Water doc -TMS13 - Completion of our AMP7 WINEP



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