In the run-up to the 1989 privatisation of the water industry in England and Wales, the magazine where I then worked sent a colleague to cover an obscure industry conference on the subject.
One of the speakers was the head honcho at one of the soon-to-be-privatised water authorities. And, mindful of his forthcoming status as head-honcho of a multi-billion pound company, he was not at all pleased about the prospect of new regulatory bodies with fresh strategies to regulate the industry and threaten shareholder value.
“You will need counterpart-calibre strategies to outwit the regulators,” he advised the water industry folk.
He was plainly unaware there was a journalist present until we reported his remarks in the next issue. Then, all hell broke loose. Threats of libel suits or worse, however, rapidly disappeared when he discovered we had a tape-recording of his speech.
In the event, shareholders of the new companies got less of a bonus than they hoped for because the EU enacted an Urban Waste Water Directive shortly afterwards. This forced the industry to make some pretty rapid investments to clean up England and Wales’ filthy, sewage-impregnated, beaches and rivers.
To soften the blow for shareholders, the Government allowed most of the cost to be passed on to consumers, so they had to meet the cost of both the clean-up and the huge dividends paid out.
Fast forward 30 years or so and people are once again complaining that English rivers are turning into foul sewers.
Whether or not the water industry did develop “counterpart-calibre strategies to outwit the regulators” or not, a far more effective strategy proved to be a Government that’s spent a decade eroding the Environment Agency’s funding and morale.
The Commons Environmental Audit Committee is currently holding an inquiry on Water Quality in Rivers and has already heard “shocking” evidence of pollution in rivers and notes that only 14% of English rivers are currently achieving good ecological status.
But with the Government desperate to build excess houses in the parts of England where the water environment is already under the most stress from over-abstraction and climate change, it will be extremely resistant to doing anything serious.
One straw in the wind was its failure to support the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, a private member’s bill introduced by Philip Dunne MP in 2020, despite a 40,000 signature petition in support.
Climate change – making drought and deluge both more frequent and less predictable – should be another factor. As should the country’s archaic drainage system.
Last week a report by HR Wallingford recommended DEFRA to update non-statutory standards for Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) in England.
The report urged new standards to manage run-off and that water should be a central focus of masterplanning from the start so they can deliver multiple benefits.
In this way the negative impacts of run-off could be reduced and it could be used to support amenity and recreational spaces, promote urban cooling and allow more rainfall harvesting.
These are good, practical ideas.
Let’s hope, if they ever see the light of day, the water and house building industries aren’t already developing “counterpart-calibre strategies” to outwit them.