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  • Writer's pictureThe Bridge Burford

On The Water Front

Water, and the companies who supply it and dispose of it, have been much in the news in recent weeks. The supply side has been so lacking that hosepipe bans have been imposed in our area and many others, but this has led to complaints that the real problem is that 25% of water escapes from leaky pipes before it reaches consumers. In comparison the amount used watering gardens and washing cars is, er, a drop in the ocean. The disposal side came into focus as soon as some rain began to fall and the water companies released untreated sewage into rivers and the sea. The latter was particularly unpopular as it coincided with the seaside holiday season. Even the French have complained about the risk of la merde anglaise washing up on the beaches of Normandy, making the entente less than cordiale.

Across England and Wales incidents of raw sewage discharge more than doubled between 2016 and 2021. The start of this coincided with cuts by DEFRA of £80m on sewage monitors as part of “efficiency savings”. (Award yourself an A* if you can remember which minister was in charge of DEFRA in 2016. She has now gone on to higher things). It has also emerged that all 11 water and sewage companies in England and Wales failed to meet their targets for tackling pollution and sewage outflows. They face fines totalling £75m for the last financial year for falling short of their targets. The government’s response is to point the finger at the regulator, OFWAT, which is charged with supervising water companies. The beleaguered CEO of OFWAT, David Black, insists that he is determined to hold the companies to account and penalise them when they fall short of the required standard. He is also seeking powers to block “inappropriate” dividend payments. However it has been pointed out that, since the water industry was privatised in 1989, it is estimated that dividends of £72 billion have been paid to shareholders. To such companies fines of £75m must be the equivalent of the loose change you supposedly find down the back of the sofa.

Back in our part of the world, some readers may have seen a long article by Oliver Bullough which appeared in The Guardian and later in The Week magazine about “the duo who uncovered the truth about our rivers.” It tells the story of Peter Hammond, a retired professor of computational biology, who moved to a new home by the Windrush. In 2013 he acquired a new neighbour, a retired detective superintendent and a keen fisherman called Ashley Smith. As a fisherman, Ashley quickly recognised that all was not well with the river. Hammond and Smith, the Lennon and McCartney of fighting river pollution, set about investigating the cause of the problems for the Windrush and then for other rivers. Hammond’s career had involved using computers to help doctors identify medical conditions in children and he adapted his skills to analyse data from water companies. Smith’s investigational expertise enabled him to ferret out information from water companies and regulators. By sending out freedom of information requests they started to discover the extent to which untreated sewage was being dumped into the Windrush and the fact that this had been tolerated by the Environment Agency. (The EA is responsible for protecting the environment as a whole while OFWAT’s job is specifically to supervise the water and sewage companies). This led to the foundation of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP), helped by other local campaigners.

Water companies are allowed to discharge raw sewage into rivers after exceptional rainfall because rain also runs into sewers and there would be the danger of them backing up into homes. However they are required to report such instances to the regulators. They discovered that there were for long periods, sometimes months at a time, the water companies were simply not reporting this. Worse still, the companies were discharging sewage when there had been no rain at all. They reported their findings to the regulators and this led to an enquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee, a parliamentary body, whose members came to see the Windrush for themselves.

Bullough’s article goes on to recount that eventually the EA and OFWAT announced that they were starting an investigation into the water companies although this might take up to two years. They seemed to be very reluctant to acknowledge that this was in response to the information that Hammond had dug up and they simply used expressions like “new information”. Apparently they did not want to admit that Hammond had uncovered facts that they should have known already if they had been doing their job. Also a new body, the Office of Environmental Protection, has been set up to investigate the existing bodies - in effect to regulate the regulators (are you keeping up?)

There is still a long way to go and the WASP team are carrying on the good work. But it’s clear that we owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Hammond, Ashley Smith and the rest of the WASP team. It’s an extraordinary achievement for “a bunch of amateurs” (in Ashley’s words) to uncover such a major scandal.



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