Critics have poured cold water on sewage companies apologising for spills as they prepare to invest £10bn in modernisation.
The bid to clean up Britain’s waters comes in the wake of campaigning from environmental activists and locals over the scale of sewage spillages from big water companies.
Water UK, the industry membership body, yesterday announced plans for a transformation scheme dubbed the National Overflows Plan, with a tripling of funding from current levels.
It said the project was the biggest modernisation since the Victorian era and the most ambitious programme on sewage spills globally.
But Lib Dem leader Ed Davey hit out at firms, saying: “This apology and plan just don’t go far enough.”
He claimed water companies had “arrogantly dismissed” concerns for years and criticised the “billions” in dividends to overseas investors and “multi-million pound CEO bonuses”.
Davey said the government had been “pathetic” in tackling the issue and added: “The one apology missing here is from the environment secretary… it says a lot when profiteering polluters have the decency to apologise, yet the government refuses.”
Environmental audit committee chairman Philip Dunne, however, welcomed the sector being in “listening mode” and described the plan as “promising” and investment “long overdue”.
He said the scheme needed to “prioritise the locations most susceptible to damaging overflows” and backed firms goal to designate up to 100 locations bathing water quality.
“People are quite rightly sick and tired of the repeated reports of sewage flowing into our rivers and seas, and we must put a stop to it,” he said.
“Today’s initiatives, if delivered fully, could go a long way to addressing these understandable concerns and returning the country’s precious waterways to good health.”
‘More should have been done’
Plans from WaterUK also include an environmental hub offering real-time overflow updates.
Firms say they have committed to accelerating progress, if the £10bn is approved by regulators, and will install surge capacity, boost treatment works, address run-off, treat overflow spill and enlarge and improve the sewer network.
WaterUK chairman Ruth Kelly said: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry.
“More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.
“This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”
Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency, said he welcomed the commitments made by WaterUK.
“Now we want to see action and a clear plan for delivery. The Environment Agency will be working closely with them to ensure this happens,” he said.
Water minister Rebecca Pow also welcomed the action: “This apology by the water industry is not before time and I welcome it.
“The government has put the strictest targets ever on water companies to reduce sewage pollution and demanded that water companies deliver their largest ever infrastructure investment – £56bn. I am pleased that they are now taking action to deliver on this – but there is still a great deal more to do.”