CIWEM's director of policy Alastair Chisholm reacts to the EA and Ofwat investigation into sewage treatment works.
"It is positive that both the environmental and economic regulators of water companies have committed to examining standards of practice around long-term maintenance of sewerage assets and the legality of discharges from treatment works – and the corporate management that has driven this.
"Water companies should be front and centre of the stewardship of our water environment in the face of climate and nature emergencies. This is a vital public service and requires robust planning, investment and delivery, and regulation.
"In 2019 Water UK, the industry trade body, established the Public Interest Commitment. It noted that “In serving customers within a framework of independent regulation and government policy, companies are party to an implicit contract with society, through which they earn the privilege to serve in return for delivering wider benefits to society and the environment". It also stated that "that social contract has worked well over the last 30 years".
"Recent evidence over water company performance on sewage calls into question whether companies have really earned this privilege, and how well it has indeed worked – for the public and the environment at least. The findings of both the joint EA-Ofwat investigation, and any investigation that the new Office for Environmental Protection might make in response to complaints submitted around alleged failure to enforce sewage pollution laws to protect English rivers, will further shed light on this question.
"Whatever the answer, it is clear that the water industry and its regulation needs to evolve substantially to meet contemporary challenges around meeting customer needs, reducing emissions and building resilience to climate change, and delivering nature recovery in our water environment.
"To do that, it must first and foremost deliver transparently against that social contract, and its regulators should properly and consistently hold it to account.”
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