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Environment Secretary to meet water firms as regulator sets out bill hikes




New Environment Secretary Steve Reed is to meet all the water companies in England and Wales, as regulator Ofwat is set to reveal how much they will be able to hike bills.

The meeting comes at a crunch point for embattled water firms, which are under fire over sewage pollution and leaks, their demands to be able to put up bills for investment in ageing infrastructure and the bonuses and dividends they have been paying out.

Mr Reed will meet the companies as Ofwat releases its draft decision on the water industry’s future spending plans, setting out how far England’s suppliers can raise consumer bills over the next five years and how much they can spend on updating their ageing infrastructure.

The election of this Labour government is a reset moment for the water industry
Labour source

Labour is casting its electoral win as a “reset moment” for the water industry, and has promised to set out its plans to reform the sector in the coming weeks and months.

A source close to Mr Reed said: “The last Conservative government weakened regulation allowing the sewage system to crumble and illegal sewage dumping to hit record levels.

“The election of this Labour government is a reset moment for the water industry.

“In coming weeks and months, the Government will outline its first steps to reform the water sector to attract the investment we need to upgrade our infrastructure and restore our rivers, lakes and seas to good health.”

New Environment Secretary Steve Reed will meet representatives from water firms (Tejas Sandhu/PA)
New Environment Secretary Steve Reed will meet representatives from water firms (Tejas Sandhu/PA)

For Thames Water, which is gripped by a funding crisis, Ofwat’s draft decision on Thursday could be crunch time.

The firm has 16 million customers in London and the Thames Valley region and its plans submitted to Ofwat propose raising their bills by 44% between now and 2030.

The average yearly bill for a Thames customer is £436 at the moment, but that would rise to £627 in five years under its plans before factoring in inflation.

The bills hike will help it fund £19.8 billion of improvements to its network of drains, sewers and reservoirs.

It has also asked Ofwat to lower the amount it fines the water company for incidents such as sewage spills and leakages.

Thames warned on Tuesday that it has only enough money to last it until the end of May 2025 before it goes out of business.

The water firm is drowning in more than £15 billion of debt, and said on Tuesday that it needs fresh investment in the coming months to keep it afloat.

Already, existing shareholders pulled the plug on £500 million-worth of emergency funding in March. Thames said Ofwat’s initial assessments of its business plan had the company “uninvestible”.

If it ultimately fails to attract fresh funding, Thames’ fraying finances will present Sir Keir Starmer’s newly elected Labour Government with a significant industrial crisis.

Ofwat’s draft decision is a crunch moment for Thames Water which is in a perilous financial condition (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Ofwat’s draft decision is a crunch moment for Thames Water which is in a perilous financial condition (Andrew Matthews/PA)

A blueprint codenamed Project Timber was being drawn up in Whitehall in the spring, according to reports, which could see the company effectively nationalised.

Ofwat’s ruling on Thursday is only a draft decision, and kicks off a period of negotiation until its final verdict in December.

But the regulator has rarely made major deviations between its draft and final rulings in previous years, meaning Thursday’s statement will give all parties an indication of how lenient it is likely to be later on.

The draft decision comes against a backdrop of public anger over the water companies and their role in the degraded state of the country’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters, which are facing a perfect storm of creaking water infrastructure, intensive farming, a growing population and climate change.

Not a single river in England is considered to be in good overall health, and beauty spots including Windermere in the Lake District have been hit by sewage spills.

Figures released earlier this year showed storm overflows – which release untreated wastewater into rivers and seas when there is heavy rain to prevent sewers becoming overwhelmed – dumped sewage into the environment for more than 3.6 million hours in 2023.

The releases are legal, but the environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, is investigating the Environment Department (Defra), the Environment Agency and regulator Ofwat over possible failures in regulating sewer overflows.

They are concerned that discharges have been permitted more often than the “exceptional circumstances” allowed by law.

Water utilities have also been hit by large fines for illegal pollution in recent years, with a record £90 million handed to Southern Water in 2021 for 6,971 unpermitted sewage discharges.

Other companies including Thames Water, Severn Trent, South West Water and Yorkshire Water have been handed fines that ran into the millions for massive, damaging or repeated pollution incidents.


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