The public will have to pay towards upgrading storm overflows for up to a century after water companies apologised for polluting England’s rivers and promised change.
Ruth Kelly, chair of the trade body Water UK, said consumers will face “modest upward pressure” on bills while shareholders will make a £10 billion investment in the biggest modernisation of English sewers “since the Victorian era”.
Water UK wants to cut overflows by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared to the level in 2020, and it plans to publish a financial plan this summer.
Companies also aim to transform 350,000 miles of sewer and replace concrete with grass and ponds to reduce the flow of rainwater.
They also want to create an Environment Data Hub next year with “near real time” information on the 15,000 overflow monitors in England.
There were 301,091 sewage spills in 2022 in England, an average of 824 a day, according to Environment Agency figures.
This data does not include the amount of sewage released during each spill, which Tony Booker of the Colne Valley Fisheries Consultative said would be far more useful for understanding damage to river ecosystems.
He said: “It never tells you what the volume of discharges are. Without that information, it becomes completely useless because you’ve got to go out and look to see if it’s likely to impact on the river.”
Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Thursday morning, Ms Kelly said: “Over time, the way the system works is that there will be modest upward pressure on customer bills over the full lifetime of the asset, so over 50 years or perhaps even longer, maybe up to 100 years, customers do contribute.
“This is an investment programme that will go on for years. We literally want to do this as fast as is physically possible.”
Musician and clean river campaigner Feargal Sharkey criticised the water companies for making customers pay “a second time”, saying their apology was “nothing to celebrate whatsoever”.
“They are now suggesting that we should pay them a second time for a service we haven’t had.
“We should have an apology for the suggestion they are going to put bills up by £10 billion for their incompetence and their greed.
“This is nothing to celebrate whatsoever. What they should be saying is, ‘we messed this up, we’re terribly sorry, we’re going to compensate you all, £10 billion, it is the least we could do for our customers, give you a refund’.
“That we could all get behind. This is just another outbreak of moral panic due to the pressure and scrutiny they are coming under.”
Yorkshire Water sent out a separate apology and promised to invest £180 million over the next two years.
It said it has earmarked 190 storm overflows for improvement and that the works will be “partly funded by shareholders”.
“What we need to see is urgent, massive investment to upgrade their tottering infrastructure, drastic reduction in sewage discharges, and beefed-up regulators to make sure it happens properly.
“The promised £10 billion is a start but if it’s all charged on people’s bills whilst the shareholder dividends remain untouched, that would be a very strange way of being sorry.
“It should be clear by now that we can’t rely on the water firms’ goodwill to protect the health of our rivers and seas.
“Ministers should be all over this and force these companies to put the public’s good before shareholders’ profits.”