Storm Overflowing Drainage System

UK’s water supply at risk from infrastructure underinvestment, Lords warn

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Continued underinvestment will have serious consequences for the environment and the security of water supplies, the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee said.

In a letter addressed to environment secretary Thérèse Coffey, the Lords criticised the government’s “lack of leadership and deep-rooted complacency” following the committee’s inquiry into water regulator Ofwat.

It also said the government was dismissive of its report and made claims that its recommendations were outside the scope of its inquiry, which was an attempt “to avoid parliamentary scrutiny”.

The report looked at Ofwat’s recent performance, in particularly its monitoring of water firms and overuse of storm overflows, as well as its efforts to secure future water supplies.

It said Ofwat needed to go further to hold water companies to account for environmental pollution as well as ensure that companies invest sufficiently in water infrastructure.

An E&T investigation last year found that self-monitoring efforts by water companies were 100 times less likely to find breaches than Environment Agency testing of private wastewater treatment plants.

The committee also expressed doubt that the water sector would be able to attract the investment it needed and urged the government to introduce a social tariff to ensure consistent support for those struggling to pay their bills.

Furthermore, delays in banning wet wipes containing plastics were deemed “unnecessary and deeply damaging to the environment”.

Lord Hollick, chair of the committee, said: “While the government has begun to set out its vision for the sector, our cross-party committee has concluded unanimously that there is insufficient policy or drive to meet the government’s targets. Sadly, the only thing that is becoming clear in the murky, polluted waters of the sewage crisis is a lack of leadership and deep-rooted complacency.

“The government must therefore provide firmer policy detail and greater guidance to regulators, who cannot be left to resolve these huge challenges by themselves.

“In particular, the government must give clear guidance on the trade-off between much-needed investment and the level of customer bills. We look forward to the response from the secretary of state, setting out how she intends to do this.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We take our oversight of the water industry incredibly seriously and firmly disagree with these conclusions.

“We are delivering increased investment, stronger regulation, and tougher enforcement right across the sector. This includes being the first government to set ambitious targets for water companies to address storm overflows, which the High Court has ruled go even further than existing law.

“We agree that more needs to be done. That’s why we are introducing unlimited penalties for polluters, driving the largest infrastructure programme in water company history, and have set clear expectations for water companies to deliver the changes that we all want to see.”

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