Barclay letter to water companies – strange echoes of Therese Coffey?

2 minute read / Guy Linley-Adams
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Water companies are under pressure to share their plans for improving Britain's water infrastructure.

On 20 February 2023, the then Environment Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, wrote to water companies and demanded water companies share their plans for improving Britain’s water infrastructure. The correspondence requested: “a clear assessment & action plan on every storm overflow from every water and sewerage company in England, prioritising those that are spilling more than a certain number of times a year, and those spilling into bathing waters and high priority nature sites”.

She was furious, so it seemed and was taking no prisoners:

“… frankly we are all fed up. I was particularly horrified last week that one of the water companies seemingly did not know the reason for a single one of their overflows being triggered. That is absolutely shocking and reinforced the need for detailed action plans. So, I want to be unequivocal. Water companies need to clean up their act. Water companies must cover the costs”.

She set the water companies some serious homework:

“I made it clear to water companies that they must set out exactly what they will do to clean up the mess – with the action plans on individual storm overflows due on my desk by the summer”.

So, you can imagine our surprise to read a week ago that the brand new Environment Secretary, Steve Barclay, has just written again (on 11 December 2023) to the water companies’ chief executives, saying that “the environmental and public health impacts of these [storm sewage] discharges to our precious waterways, the water sector’s failure to act and, in some cases, criminal behaviour, are unacceptable”.

Mr Barclay went on: “I would like all companies to respond with a better maintenance programme, eliminating this as a cause of storm overflow sewage discharges in the next 12 months, unless in exceptional circumstances… profit must not come at the cost of pollution, and the public rightly expect that this issue is addressed with maximum speed and ambition….I would be grateful if you could write with your plans by 19th December...”

Some obvious questions flow from this.

Did Ms Coffey not receive the homework she set the water companies to do by the summer just gone?

If so, was it so poor that Mr Barclay has had to re-set the same homework?

Will it be any better this time?

Mr Barclay’s letter also now says that “regulators will take enforcement action where companies breach their legal obligations” relating to storm overflows. Not “may”, not “are able to”, they “will”.

Sounds good?

Well, Mr Barclay also had to write to OFWAT and the Environment Agency (also on 11 December) saying: “I expect significant improvements in the regulatory oversight of water companies”.

The cynic in me can’t help but suggest that, given the utter mess the Environment Agency is in, there is ample room both for Mr Barclay’s ‘significant improvements’, as well as for the Environment Agency’s regulatory oversight of water companies to remain wholly inadequate.

By: Guy Linley-Adams
Barclay letter to water companies – strange echoes of Therese Coffey? - Wildfish
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