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Experts weigh in on fixing England’s water system

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Graham Mann
I have been in the Water & Waste Water industry for 30 years and formed a Water Consultancy business called H2o Building Services both myself and my team have built a wealth of knowledge and expertise Saving companies money on their Water bi

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  • Experts weigh in on fixing England’s water system

As citizens of 21st century England, we perhaps take access to clean water and sanitation a little for granted, but it hasn’t always been this way, with piped water only made readily available to the majority of the population in the late 18th century.

And it wasn’t until a fair few years later down the line that sewer construction became so widespread that people were able to enjoy access to sanitation facilities for the first time.

As Britain grew and flourished in line with industrialisation from the mid-1700s onwards, traditional methods of sewage collection and removal were no longer fit for purpose, with urban centres becoming more crowded and the population expanding quickly.

Sewer systems were slowly developed to carry sewage from cesspits and privies outside properties to waterways for dispersal, until the first flushing toilets were invented… a very real game-changer where health and hygiene were concerned.

But, of course, in places like London the growing popularity of these newfangled inventions helped to overwhelm cesspits thanks to all the flowing water, which contaminated water supplies and increased pollution levels in rivers like the Thames.

No doubt you’ve all heard of The Great Stink before, when the hot summer of 1858 saw centuries of waste that had been dumped in the river start to ferment, emanating all sorts of foul and foetid smells to the intense distress of one and all.

As nasty as this must have been for the city’s residents at the time, we can perhaps be grateful for it, because it led to the introduction of a new system to prevent sewage from entering the river… and thus our interconnected sewer network was born.

The original scheme required the replacement of more than 150 miles of old sewers and the construction of more than 1,000 miles of new ones – with 318 million bricks used along the way.

As impressive as all this certainly is, the issue now is that the sewerage systems weren’t designed with population growth in mind and the nation’s ageing Victorian pipes are starting to struggle, unable to cope with the amount of waste now being created.

Climate change is also a factor and the reality is that the system is increasingly unable to bear the weight of extreme weather events like flooding, which drives up the use of combined sewer overflows and means even more wastewater ends up in the natural environment, affecting water quality.

The result of all this is that the dumping of raw sewage into rivers, lakes and streams has reached a scale hitherto unseen, with water companies around England coming under serious fire for illegal practices in this regard.

But this isn’t the only problem facing the water industry and, pollution aside, the sector also has to get a handle on mounting debts, leakage rates and underinvestment in infrastructure if it is to safeguard water resources for future generations and keep the taps running as we’ve become accustomed to.

Potential solutions to a complex problem

To find possible answers to the UK’s water crisis, the Guardian has approached a range of industry experts to see what they have to say on the matter.

As the news source explains, the last 30 years or so has seen the privatised English water sector evolve into a system of shadow ownership, which has seen significant debts amassed while large dividends are paid out to investors.

Thames Water, for example, which serves 16 million customers across London and the Thames Valley, is now overshadowed by debts of £18 billion and is seeing its value take a tumble while it struggles to find the money it needs from its shareholders.

As for South East Water, debt costs have climbed in the last few months by £7.4 million, peaking at £54.8 million in the face of inflation and higher interest rates.

This, coupled with the illegal dumping of sewage into waterways (which has been going on for years) and the fact that hefty dividends are being paid out at the same time as increasing customer bills to make infrastructure investments, suggests that a turnkey solution must be found, one that ensures clean drinking water, builds climate change resilience into the system, provides accountability and protects the environment.

Dieter Helm, professor of economic policy at Oxford University, believes that it is now necessary to drive through systemic change to prioritise water conservation, sustainability and regulation to address the problem of pollution at the source.

He said: “The one objection to nationalisation which has little merit is that it would cost the government a lot. This is nonsense,” going on to add that renationalisation would see the regulatory asset-based debt (RAB) swapped for government bonds, with the government gaining assets and the RABs, while switching utility debt for Treasury debt.

Dr Ewan McGaughey of King’s College London, meanwhile, suggested that England should follow in the footsteps of places like Paris, Wales and Scotland to restore public ownership of the system using the legal framework that already exists.

In this scenario, special administration would be triggered if suppliers are unlikely to meet their debts without having to rely on public subsidies, or if they’ve failed in their duties by not preventing water leaks or stopping pollution.

Dr McGaughey made further recommendations, saying that industry watchdog Ofwat must scrap the rules that say reasonable returns for investors have to be secured on their capital.

A new social regulator should be established to make sure customers have access to clean water and sanitation, as well as clean waterways and coastal areas, with all future surpluses going towards upgrading infrastructure.

As for sustainability, Mr Helm proposed that drinking and wastewater systems be separated, which can be phased in gradually to keep costs down. Greywater can be recycled at household level and new housing developments can have water efficiency requirements included at the planning stage.

Currently, drinking water supplies are used for everything from cleaning cars and watering the garden to cooling data centres… but there is potential for drinking water to only be taken for drinking and other related uses, with consumption metered with volume-related charges.

Whatever solutions are ultimately selected, the general consensus certainly seems to be that urgent action must be taken in order to get a handle on the situation as it stands right now.

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