Britain's Dirty Water: What Went Wrong?

There were more than 300,000 sewage spills across England and Wales in 2022, for a total of  1.7million hours by all the water companies, according to official data. In May this year, water companies finally admitted that they hadn’t done enough to stop this across the UK and announced a £10 billion plan to reduce them. To find out what is going wrong and if this could lead to consumers paying more for their water bills, reporter Joe Crowley investigates.

In 1989 England and Wales became among the first countries in the world to fully privatise their water and sewage systems. Critics say, there hasn’t been enough investment into water and sewage infrastructure to keep pace with demand as the population has grown - and that’s part of the reason why there are so many spills today.  

Joe Crowley returns to the Lake District to meet environmental campaigner Matt Staniek who tells him why - alongside agricultural run off - he blames the local water company, United Utilities, for pollution in the water at Windermere. They visit the Far Sawrey waste water treatment works, near Windermere, which discharges into a nearby river that has been found to have a 61 per cent reduction in the number of invertebrates in the river downstream of this pipe, compared to upstream, according to the charity Wildfish who have conducted testing in the area. Matt Staniek also tells Joe that he has identified what he believes to be sewage fungus in this river. 

United Utilities told Tonight that this small plant is working properly, that this river meets the standards for ‘high’ ecological status according to an independent survey, and that the sewage fungus was a result of the course of the stream being diverted by an unknown party. It added that it is spending £3 billion addressing storm overflows across the North West.

Analysis by the Liberal Democrats of Environment Agency data for England on the sewage monitors that water companies are required to fit near bathing waters revealed; that of the 1,031 monitors, 112 were not working properly last year - of which 52 had also been faulty in 2021.

In the North of England, Scarborough’s South Bay is facing its own pollution issues. The Environment Agency advises against actually getting in the water here this summer - after tests in summer 2022 revealed high levels of bacteria linked to faeces, and concerns about a factory outlet pipe. 

Business owner, Steve Crawford, has taught surfing in South Bay for almost two decades but, with locals and visitors being warned against going in the water, Steve’s school hasn’t run a session in months.

Yorkshire Water told Tonight that the reasons for poor bathing water quality are complex, that the number of sewage discharges on Yorkshire's coast have reduced by half, and that it is accelerating plans to tackle storm overflows.

Joe also sat down with Stuart Colville, Water UK’s Head of Policy, to discuss some of the criticisms of the water industry. 

We've seen a significant improvement in the cleanliness of our bathing waters over the last few decades. But we need to keep on making further progress. No one ever wants a bill to go up. And I know now is a really difficult time for lots of people but at the same time, we really need investment. Over the last 15 years, I think we've got the balance wrong between investment and bills. So customers have enjoyed or got the benefits of lower bills, but actually that has reduced the amount of investment available. The independent regulator does ensure they have a clear policy that customers will not pay twice for something that should have been done already. - Stuart Colville, Head of Policy, Water UK

Britain's Dirty Water: What Went Wrong? Tonight with reporter Joe Crowley is on ITV Thursday 3rd August at 8:30pm.

Useful Links:

  • To check the status of beach and bathing water across the UK visit GOV.UK.

  • Visit the Rivers Trust charity to view their map showing sewage network discharge areas in England & Wales.

  • Find official Environmental Agency data about your water company, here

  • Surfers Against Sewage - interactive map tracking real time spills

  • If you’re struggling to pay your water bills, visit Citizen Advice Bureau’s ‘Help with paying your water bills’ advice page.