The green roots of the UK’s water crisis
Climate-change alarmism has throttled innovation in the water industry.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government is preparing contingency plans to nationalise Thames Water, which has accrued a debt pile of £14 billion. And the government might not stop there. It fears that the debt accumulated by the UK water industry as a whole, which runs to £60 billion, could lead to more state bailouts and takeovers down the line.
There are strong arguments for renationalising the water industry. The current set-up – of private, profit-making firms running a natural monopoly – is clearly dysfunctional. Critics are right to point to chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and to a deplorable record on leaks and sewage releases into our rivers and seas. All the while, water-company bosses have enjoyed fat salaries and bonuses and shareholders have reaped huge rewards. This has been funded by companies taking on vast amounts of debt and pushing ever-higher bills on to householders.
But the parlous state of the water industry isn’t purely down to who owns it. Take the lack of investment and innovation. This is not just because of the parsimony of the water companies. State regulators have also stymied investment by putting up hurdles to new projects. The Environment Agency (EA) has objected to several of Thames Water’s plans, including water-extraction projects in Teddington and in the Cotswolds, as well as a proposed major new reservoir in Abingdon. The EA has also called for Thames Water to mothball its £250million desalination plant in Beckton, east London, which has barely been used since it was built in 2010.
Given this track record, state control alone is unlikely
to lead to better water infrastructure. The ensuing problems of leaks and raw-sewage discharges would likely continue, too. To reverse all this, we must first take on a culture of official obstructionism, which has been justified by green ideology at every turn.
After all, it’s not as if there isn’t already a stringent regulatory regime in place. As the Guardian notes, there are existing ‘strict laws against pollution’, including the recent Environment Act 2021. There are also ‘public bodies aplenty with the powers to enforce those laws’, from the aforementioned EA to Natural England and the newly created Office for Environmental Protection. And yet, despite all this, Britain’s water infrastructure has continued to deteriorate.
Water charities have not helped matters, either. The Rivers Trust has decided to blame farmers, alongside the water companies, for the poor state of Britain’s rivers. And one of its proposed solutions to low river levels is to advise people to use less water – perhaps by doing one’s laundry less frequently or only putting ‘as much water in the kettle as you need’. This is essentially a call for consumers to ration their water use.
Green ideology permeates those who are supposed to manage, regulate and conserve our waterways. This has worsened the crisis in two key ways.
Firstly, the spectre of climate change is being used to excuse the failings of the sector. So, in May, Thames Water CEO Sarah Bentley talked of the supposedly near insuperable challenges posed to the UK’s water supply by a warming planet. In truth, there is no reason whatsoever for a developed, relatively rainy country like Britain to ever run out of water – however warm our summers might get in the future.
Secondly, green ideology is being invoked to justify underinvestment in infrastructure and innovation. Speaking to a House of Lords committee in October last year, Southern Water boss Lawrence Gosden made the green case against building reservoirs. ‘If we just built storage, that would increase the carbon footprint of the industry dramatically’, he warned. It’s a view shared by many politicians, too. Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran, has warned of the supposedly ‘catastrophic’ environmental consequences of building Thames Water’s planned reservoir in Abingdon.
This is why environmentalism is so central to the degradation of our water industry. It’s a worldview shared by the private sector and the state alike, which places green virtue-signalling above meeting the needs of the public. This is the subterranean stream that is driving today’s water crisis.
James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Rivers Trust blames farmers instead of water companies for water pollution, when it holds both responsible. It also stated that reducing water consumption is the Rivers Trust’s principal solution to the water crisis, when it is one of many proposals.
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