Welsh Water has 'nothing to hide' over sewage pollution CEO tells MPs

  • Peter Parry said he welcomes the company's performance being scrutinised

The CEO of Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water has said the firm has "nothing to hide" over the number of sewage spills in Wales.

Peter Parry was answering questions from MPs on the Welsh Affairs Committee when he made the comment on Wednesday.

The committee, chaired by Preseli Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb, was looking at the wider issue of water quality in Wales, speaking to executives from Welsh Water, as well as experts and regulators.

Also appearing in front of the select committee, Steve Wilson, Managing Director of Wastewater Services at the company, said storm overflows are expected to increase this year because of high levels of rain, especially compared with the dry weather of 2022.

  • Natural Resources Wales CEO Clare Pillman said prosecutions have a limited impact

At the start of proceedings, Mr Crabb said recent revelations in the media had led the select committee to re-examine the issue.

Welsh Water was downgraded in 2022 after it was found to have caused 89 pollution incidents over the year.

The company's annual report outlined the decline of its environmental performances with pollution problems rising by 7% last year.

Current rules mean a sewage spill is only legal when the system is at full capacity, such as during a storm. However, it has been found human waste is being released even when pipes are not at full capacity - potentially making them illegal.

Clare Pillman, CEO of Natural Resources Wales, also fielded questions in Westminster. She said water quality is not where it should be.

Ms Pillman said: "This [sewage spills] is neither a simple issue nor one which has arisen overnight," adding "It's a very live issue."

Natural Resources Wales regulates water in Wales.

Talking about relatively low levels of prosecutions for illegal sewage spills in Wales, OFWAT CEO David Black said it is "not just about fining companies. We want companies who are ambitious" about the service they provide.

However, the head of the water regulator across England and Wales acknowledged "We think it's important we have the power" to fine companies, while saying "we can't punish our way to excellence."

Welsh Water said in October its new business plan would see bills go up by £120 a year to tackle pollution and spills.

Charges will increase by £5 a month in 2025, rising by £10 a month by the end of the decade.

  • There is almost an attitude of "move along, there's nothing to see here"

Two key challenges making it harder to prevent spills are climate change and an ageing sewer system.

Gail Davies-Walsh, CEO of Afonydd Cymru, a charity working with river trusts, said global warming is "clearly" having an impact, making weather less predictable and more severe.

Meanwhile, Welsh Water CEO Peter Perry said: "We do not have the perfect infrastructure."

But Professor Davey Jones from Bangor University told MPs the public needs to take a share of the responsibility for poor water quality, saying the issue comes from "further up the chain" than just Welsh Water.

He pointed to the examples of wet wipes and pharmaceuticals entering the system - both of which are known to have a damaging impact.

Professor Jones also argued "We need to move with the times [scientifically] in Wales" to monitor specific diseases such as norovirus in the sewage system."

The Welsh Government is trying to look at which pollution poses the biggest threat to people's health, instead of just focusing on the number of sewage spills which occur. Professor Jones said it was still important to reduce the overall number of spillages.

Welsh Water executives were directly asked whether they are paid too much.

Responding to the question, Mr Parry said: "We have no input to that. That is decided by the independent remunerations committee of our board. Last year, Mike [Davis] and I gave up our variable pay."

He added: "30% of the measures [used to calculate variable pay] are actually based on the environment. Now, as a result of climactic conditions last year - the drought and the freeze-thaw - Mike and I made the decision to waive that payment.

"There's also been a recent report from OFWAT on the expectation of a set of criteria for executive pay and variable pay and ours met that highest threshold that was in that OFWAT report."

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We expect water companies in Wales to continuously improve services to customers and address any areas of concern. 

 “We have made our expectations and priorities for the water industry clear in our Strategic Priorities and Objectives Statement to OFWAT.

 "Our water sector is facing immediate and unprecedented challenge; we must achieve decarbonisation, climate resilience and reverse biodiversity loss, all against the backdrop of the current cost of living crisis. Government, businesses and communities all have a role to play in helping Wales' waterbodies to thrive." 

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