Why do just a few days of sunshine in Britain always lead to a water shortage?
By Janet Street-Porter For Mailonline
16:48 16 Jun 2023, updated 16:48 16 Jun 2023
Are our water companies as incompetent as rail operators?
If there’s a heavy rain these overpaid fat-cats complain there’s too much rain for their antiquated systems to cope – so raw sewage gets dumped on our beaches, making swimming a health hazard.
If the sun shines for more than a week, we can expect the imposition of draconian water restrictions within a matter of days.
Hosepipes are regarded as implements of the devil and woe betide anyone who washes the patio, fills a paddling pool, or cools down by drinking more than two litres of tap water a day.
Much of England’s creaking water system is riddled with leaks, with up to a quarter of supplies dribbled away every day, and – in spite of thousands of new homes being built in the South East – suppliers haven’t matched increased demand with new reservoirs.
Most of us accept that the weather is changing, becoming more extreme and unpredictable.
Last summer’s long drought was followed by a wet winter and a very late spring. In Europe the story has been the same.
A hot spell in Spain in spring was followed by unseasonably low temperatures, heavy rain and even hail stones during my break in May!
I shivered in a cardigan in the countryside near Ronda and spent exactly two minutes on a quick dip in the pool.
Last week I hoped to find sun in Tuscany (the trip was booked a year ago), but arrived to find thunderstorms, heavy rain and hour after hour of clouds.
I wore my raincoat more than my shorts and resorted to swimming with a plastic shopping bag on my head.
Returning home in search of a tan, I discovered that (as usual) prolonged sunny weather in the UK means our water companies can’t cope.
South East water have imposed a hosepipe ban – the earliest ever – on two million customers in Kent and Sussex, claiming that demand for drinking water has ‘reached record levels’ during the current heatwave.
They asked customers to only use water ‘for essential purposes’.
Schools have had to close because kids can’t use the toilets, bottled water is being handed out in big towns like Ashford, and homes and businesses in a huge swathe of Kent and Sussex have endured very low water pressure.
Anyone would think they lived on the edge of the Sahara, not the South Downs and the Kent Weald.
Doesn’t it all sound horribly familiar? Every summer we seem to face hosepipe bans, water shortages and the threat of standpipes in the street.
Like running trains on time, supplying water seems to be an incredibly difficult task.
In 1989 the government decided to privatise England’s water providers, and since then profit, not service or guaranteed supplies has ruled their strategy.
The Scottish government own Scottish water and Welsh water is operated by a not-for-profit company, but English water companies are currently owned by rich foreign investors including the governments of Singapore, China, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.
TransPennine Trains recently had their franchise removed for incompetence after customers had suffered years of cancellations, strikes and late arrivals. Why are water companies not subjected to the same scrutiny?
In 2021, Southern Water was fined £90 million for causing serious pollution in protected coastal waters by discharging sewage on 62 occasions over a five-year period.
The company had already faced a £126 million penalty for pollution in 2019. Have they improved their service? Sadly, it seems not: during the first eight days of November 2022 Southern spent over 3,700 hours dumping raw sewage on 83 of England’s loveliest beaches.
Now, the government’s Information Watchdog has ruled the company must publish internal memos detailing how they deal with raw sewage, but they are stonewalling and refusing to do so.
Less than a month ago, I spent a few days in Whitstable – currently facing the new water restrictions from June 26th – and was told the beach where I regularly swim was still being regularly polluted by discharges of raw sewage every time there was a heavy storm.
Like our train operators, the overpaid bosses of UK’s water companies seem to find the needs of their customers a major inconvenience.
The job of a water company is surely to provide water, deal with sewage efficiently, protect our environment and avoid pollution at all costs.
Sadly, these core objectives seem beyond their capabilities, while customers face ever increasing bills for something they can’t live without.
The previous boss of Southern Water, Ian McAuley earned over £1 million, with bonuses. He retired last year and his successor – Laurence Gosden – has not revealed his pay, although he announced he was not taking a bonus in 2023.
The biggest water companies – like Thames, Severn Trent and Yorkshire – pay their chief executives well over a million pounds a year, including bonuses.
Even if some have said they are not claiming the bonus this year because of the outcry over sewage discharges, their renumeration is grossly inflated considering the service they provide.
Would the boss of a biscuit factory get a massive bonus if customers found out that his cookies were full of sawdust?
But if that person ran a failing NHS trust, train company or supplied drinking water to a beauty spot in England, they probably would.
Sadly, this now seems to be the British way, routinely over-rewarding failure and shockingly poor service dished out to customers who have no other choice.
Recently, the MP for Eastbourne was told that the reason why the lovely beach had been downgraded from ‘good’ to ‘sufficient’- an appalling result for a town which relies on holidaymakers – was because there had been a ‘misconnection’ of sewage pipes. In other words poo was being dumped where children swim.
Misconnection is another of those modern words disguising the fact that water companies have under-invested in upgrading their systems for decades while steadily increasing bills and providing nothing in return.
Earlier this year the water companies issued a joint apology for the 822 tons of raw sewage they dumped every day in England in 2022, promising us they would invest £10 billion on storm overflows to prevent it happening in the future.
At present they can face fines of up to £250 million, although the ineffectual Environment Secretary, Theresa Coffey thinks the level of punishment is ‘disproportionate’.
I expect customers will be subsidising these wonderful new storm drains via their annual bills.
This weekend, experts predict the hot weather will be broken by thunder storms and record rainfall of up to 60 mm in 24 hours.
That won’t mean the end of hosepipe bans, but it will mean you’ll probably be swimming alongside of lot of poo at the seaside.