top of page
  • Ash

Environment Agency growls - but will it bite?

Prepare to be amazed.

The intro

For years the water industry has got away with murder. The victims have been those without a voice, the wildlife of the rivers, streams, lakes, and seas on the receiving end of water company pollution which should have been prevented by proper regulation and the enforcement of the law but wasn't.

Overloaded sewers and water company indifference to pollution

People have also taken a hit but have not yet been killed, as far as we know, although many have been made very ill after contact with sewage pollution. It is, we know, only a matter of time.

Livelihoods have been affected, ranging from oyster fishermen to angling clubs and people's lives have been made worse as the quintessential British places where children could paddle amongst a plethora of ducks, fish, and insects have been turned into grey, miserable and lifeless ditches . People even have to wonder about the safety of taking a paddle at the seaside, let alone swimming in it.

The most unlucky can't even escape sewage at home where it is spilling from overloaded sewers into their streets and most recently I met a family who had their water company deliver a Portaloo to their garden. They could not use the toilet in their house because the passing sewer was already overflowing into the road and people driving by were splashing untreated sewage across the front of their home. The fact that it is mixed with rainwater seems to be the best water bosses can come up with to soften the blow as they keep the big bonuses and dividends flowing far more effectively than their sewerage systems.

Toilet paper and the stench of sewage as people drive, cycle and walk through untreated sewage. Try not to get sprayed by a passing car!

The story

Water companies have been allowed to set bills to upgrade sewage works and systems to cope with modern-day demands and loading from new housing but they have gamed the system and skimmed off the money in dividends and taken big bonuses for serving the shareholders, not the captive billpayers. How they did that is another tale but this one is about taking the billpayers money and not upgrading, letting the customer and environment take the hit while the Environmental Regulator - the Environment Agency in England, helps to cover up failure. Even worse, the Agency turns a blind eye to add new housing to hopelessly overwhelmed sewage works, while the companies take the connection fees and annual bills to increase profits.

Planning to fail

The charade of water companies claiming that they had the capacity to take more housing to demonstrably failing sewage works and overstretched sewer systems became the norm as the Environment Agency either nodded the application through, or more commonly, did not respond at all and even showed irritation about being asked the question. The shock horror of finding that houses should not be built until water companies got their works upgraded as they had been paid to do and were required to do, was put aside by pretending it wasn't happening and everyone making money out of the deal was happy - the victims of the outcome, less so.

It was in response to this scam that WASP with the Envenlode Catchment Partnership paid for legal advice to underpin an initiative with West Oxfordshire District Council and has been commenting on planning applications to make sure that conditions are set for Thames Water to upgrade illegal sewage systems before accepting the occupancy of new housing. The effectiveness of the conditions is being tested with the first examples underway.

Read more in the previous blogs on housing and our use of Grampian Conditions to force improvements.

And articles in the Oxford Mail.

And The Guardian.

The Bombshell.

Something major is happening and for once it is good, and it is unfolding in Oxfordshire. In response to an application for 1450 houses and associated buildings to be bolted onto a massive development north of Oxford, the Environment Agency has pointed out in the clearest possible terms that Oxford Sewage Works is operating illegally and has failed to upgrade in the way it was required to and, so the Agency is objecting to the planning on that basis which must, of course, also apply to every other development that will load Oxford's Sewage Works as of now.

In fact, that illegality dates back to 2021 when the Agency inspected the STW in reaction to the illegal activity reported by WASP's data analyst, the redoubtable Prof Peter Hammond whose evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry was published in March 2021. The illegality in operation may go back to 2017.

Here is the Agency response:

EA SODC obj Ox
Download PDF • 216KB

We have written to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Steve Barclay - who knows a lot about the water industry, being married to a senior executive of Anglian Water - and the letter is here so we won't repeat the content.

WASP to SB Oxford Planning App
Download PDF • 253KB

And if you can't get the download easily - here are the 4 questions we ask the Secretary of State:

Some brave and good people in the Agency had the guts to point out that the Emperor (Thames Water) is not wearing any clothes and will have to go and buy some instead of spending the money on shareholders' dividends, 'other payments' and bonuses.

The question now is whether water companies will be allowed to use their precarious financial positions to hold the government to ransom and let them keep on ripping off the billpayers or whether this or a future government will finally question the entirely predictable folly of allowing vital national infrastructure to fall into the hands of private profiteers whose only real skill is ensuring the maximum flow of money from the customer to shareholders in return for little, or in Thames Water's case, nothing.

This is not about people, campaigners and now even the Environment Agency blocking development - This is the fault of Thames Water and previously failed regulation creating a black hole in the infrastructure. Just as you cannot build a house on sand without foundations, you cannot build housing developments without the infrastructure to support them.

We don't think this could have happened before the new CEO Philip Duffy took over from the ducking and diving Sir James Bevan who hid the truth from Efra's Parliamentary scrutiny committee. Now that the Agency has acted with integrity and professionalism it is vitally important that we support the people who are doing what they are supposed to do - stand up for the environment and against illegal polluters.

Oxford dumping 442 hours of untreated sewage continuously as of 530pm 26th February

Will the Environment Secretary and government support this seismic shift towards fixing the national scandal or will he fold up and give in to the powerful funds, largely overseas money, that owns our infrastructure?

Have we reached a turning point?



Single Post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page