Government must ‘up its game’ on infrastructure investment by water companies

Rishi Sunak’s government has faced calls from its own backbenchers to “up its game” on enforcing water companies to invest in infrastructure.

Conservative former minister Caroline Nokes urged more investment in the water network, saying the current system is not working as she asked an urgent question on the performance of water companies.

The MP for Romsey and Southampton North said: “In addition to compensation, customers need there to be better ways to hold water companies to account for significant outages like the ones we have seen in southern Hampshire three times now over the course of just five months.”

She added: “We heard last week that there were plans to water down excessive fines, but Southern Water had a record £90 million levied a few years ago – that wasn’t enough to convey the message.

Conservative former minister Caroline Nokes urged more investment in the water network (PA)

“So rather than fines, could we make sure that money is levied to force investment in the network? Because current performance suggests that so far it simply hasn’t worked.”

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “The British people expect better, and so does this Government.”

She added: “Current water company performance is totally unacceptable, and they must act urgently to improve their performance so that they meet government and customer expectations.

Addressing concerns over supply in Hampshire, she said: “Whilst some supply interruptions cannot be avoided, this repeated failure to properly ensure customers continued water supply is totally unacceptable, and I will be meeting with Southern Water’s CEO to understand how they plan to address their failings.”

Dumping of raw sewage
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: ‘The British people expect better, and so does this Government’ (UK Parliament/PA)

Ms Pow said : “(Water companies) have all got to produce their updated action plans and say what they are doing.”

She highlighted the importance of enforcement, saying the Environment Agency already has powers to issue unlimited fines through criminal courts.

She added: “That can take a long time… and they need the data, which actually, because of all the monitoring the Government is doing, we’re getting more and more data, so we will be able to take more enforcement.

“But Defra is currently consulting on plans to raise that cap on fines to make it quicker and easier to issue the fines when we know that things are not working correctly.”

Conservative Paul Holmes (Eastleigh) raised compensation for customers without water, saying: “Will the Government up its game now in not asking water companies to invest in infrastructure but enforce them to do so going forward?”

Conservative Andy Carter (Warrington South) asked: “It’s absolutely right that water companies and their dividends are directly linked to their performance in providing the services to their customers and cleaning up our rivers.”

Ms Pow replied: “Now Ofwat have been directed to make sure that the payments that he refers to the bosses are linked to environmental performance and they have to be able to demonstrate that.”

Conservative Bob Blackman (Harrow East) called on the planning minister to “ensure that before developments take place, that actually sewage systems are improved to cope with the additional housing”.

Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said: “We are here again, where the same old excuses get drawn out, where the same old promises for action get drawn out.

“But there is no action behind it. The water companies know they can laugh all the way to the bank because the Government won’t take action. The regulators know the Government won’t take action, because they have taken away the capacity to take action from the regulators.”

Ms Pow said the Government is taking more action against water companies than ever before.

She added: “Because of our new storm overflow reduction plan they are now committed to £56 billion of investment up until 2050, and £7.1 billion of that is already under way.”