In a speech last Tuesday, environment secretary, Michael Gove, pledged to boost Ofwat’s powers via the Environment Bill. He said: “We will legislate to strengthen Ofwat’s powers to update water companies’ licences, in order to make sure that they can do their job.”
The comment came after Gove (pictured) criticised water companies for poor environmental performance.
He said: “At present, 16% of our rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters are in a ‘high or good status’. Our target is to improve this to 75% as soon as is practicable. Of course this cannot be achieved by water companies alone, but the role water companies are playing is simply not good enough. The recent Environmental Performance Assessment by the EA described water companies’ record in 2018 as ‘simply unacceptable’. Around 3.1billion litres of water still leak out every day – more than a fifth of the total supply.”
He singled out Southern Water in particular, noting its recent £126m pollution penalty. “For these transgressions, Southern said it was ‘deeply sorry’. Yet they still went on to have even more serious pollution incidents in 2018.”
Elsewhere in the speech, Gove gave a detailed account of Defra's work and vision for the environment, and asked “if not now, to tackle climate change and reverse nature’s decline, then when?”
Two days later, he “called in” water company chief executives alongside representatives from Ofwat, the Drinking Water Inspectorate, the Consumer Council for Water and the Environment Agency to a meeting to discuss company performance, the government’s priorities for the sector, and progress and planned action from all parties involved.
Gove said that while there are limited positive performances from water companies and an ambition to do better, he is not seeing enough immediate improvements on environmental performance, leakage and supply, and consumer experience.