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  • by Karma Loveday

MP blasts Thames Water and calls for price rise to be scrapped

Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran, lambasted Thames Water’s performance in Oxfordshire in the House of Commons last week. She said Thames was a “disaster of a company” and listed a catalogue of problems, which included:

  • sewage discharges, which she indicated had given a rower an infection and correlated with a “spate” of pet deaths after river exposure;

  • the Wolvercote Mill Stream, the country’s second inland bathing water, having a "poor" classification which could lead to the bathing water status being lost if it does not improve in the next three years: “Despite bathing water status placing a legal duty on water companies to clean up their act, Thames Water continues to discharge sewage from the treatment works at Cassington and Witney, just upstream of Port Meadow... that means that the levels of harmful bacteria, including E. coli, are dangerously high – the regulations clearly are not working”;

  • blocked drains, not cleaned for three years, aggravating flooding for the residents of Lower Radley and causing sewage to enter homes;

  • leakage; and

  • low reservoir levels noticed by residents in Farmoor, despite high levels in the rivers.

Moran said this amounted to “gross incompetence across the board” and on that basis challenged Thames’ ability to manage the Abingdon super reservoir development. “My constituents simply have no faith that Thames Water has the wherewithal to undertake such a significant infrastructure project,” she said, and called for a public inquiry into the plan.

She added that the Oxfordshire Liberal Democrats had started a petition calling on Thames Water to scrap the price hike scheduled for April. She argued that amid the failures: “It is all the more galling, in the middle of this cost of living crisis, that Thames Water announced late last year that water bills were set to rise by a whopping 60% over the next six years. That increase is to allow water companies to invest in infrastructure, which is something that they should already have been doing, and that they are now asking bill payers to do in their stead. The average household water bill will go up from £456 a year to an expected £735 a year by 2030. The price hikes are going to hit this year: water bills will increase by 6% above inflation in April. People cannot afford it.”

Moran concluded by setting out the Lib Dem plans for the wider water industry, which included:

  • transforming all English water companies into public benefit companies

  • a ban on water executive bonuses until sewage dumping stops; and

  • a sewage tax to fund the clean-up

Public benefit companies

She said: “That is a new thing for the UK: it is not a social enterprise, as such, and it would mean a complete shake-up of the boards. Public policy benefits would explicitly be considered in the running of the water companies, putting a stop to the prioritisation of profit over our waterways, without the distraction of renationalisation. We want to see environmental experts and local community groups on the boards to ensure proper scrutiny and transparency.”

A sewage tax

The tax would be used to fund the clean-up of the most polluted lakes, rivers and coastlines, “and, ultimately, an end to sewage dumping altogether.”

Water minister, Robbie Moore, agreed: “Thames Water’s performance is completely unacceptable”. He said the firm was falling short on eight of 12 common performance commitments and that its environmental performance was at its lowest since 2013.

He pointed to the ongoing wastewater investigation and Ofwat’s most recent Outcome Delivery Incentive penalties as examples of regulatory action, adding that Ofwat had also “directed Thames Water to produce a service commitment plan. That will require Thames Water to publicly commit to a plan for how it will start to turn its performance around” – on top of its recently revised three-year turnaround plan.

Regarding Wolvercote, Moore said the EA was undertaking an investigation to identify the sources of bacterial pollution and develop plans specifically on a local catchment area approach to address them. Moreover that Thames has investment earmarked in its PR24 business plan.

Elsewhere, Moore reiterated Government action points, including bathing water improvements, achieving 100% EDM monitoring, increasing EA funding and removing caps on fines. He said he would meet with Thames’ new chief executive to press other matters.

Finally, he shared regarding discharges from Witney sewage treatment works: “A criminal investigation into sewage discharges at Witney is currently being conducted by the EA, regarding significant sewage pollution incidents impacting the Colwell Brook and Emma’s Dyke downstream of Witney sewage treatment works. This was brought to my attention by the solicitor general, my hon. and learned Friend Robert Courts.

“Although it would be inappropriate for me to comment in any detail, because this is an active investigation, there are significant consequences when water companies pollute the environment.” He added that treatment capacity at Witney sewage treatment works would be increased.


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