After many months of intense public scrutiny over raw sewage discharges, England’s privatized water and wastewater companies have apologized and offered to pump $12 billion in new infrastructure by 2030. But a plan to fund work through increased customer bills has raised questions over where the money actually will go.

“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," said Ruth Kelly, chair of trade body Water UK. "We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right."

The plan agreed on by the 10 privatized utilities "could involve additional funding of [$112 billion] this decade," according to Water UK. Work would include cutting sewage overflows by up to 140,000 below the number reported in 2020. The industry is already committed to investing $3.8 billion in the five years to 2025.

Water and sewage companies agreed also to create within a year an independently monitored National Environment Data Hub to provide the public with "near-real-time" operational information on all of England’s roughly 15,000 overflow points.

Reacting to the apology in the London Times, pop star turned high-profile environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey wrote: "We’ve paid and provided all the funding needed" for the utilities to build, operate and maintain sewage systems for 30 years. "They’re now turning around and, even more contemptuously, suggesting that they now want to put up customers’ bills by [£10 billion] to cover up and pay for their failure."

Shares in England’s 10 large wastewater companies were sold free of debt to the public and then traded on the stock exchange in late 1989. Since then, they borrowed a total of $64 billion to finance infrastructure investment by the end of 2021, says David Hall, visiting professor at the Public Services International Research Unit of University of Greenwich, London.

Between 1991 and 2018, companies’ total dividend payments to shareholders amounted to $70.5 billion at 2018 prices, equivalent to nearly half the total capital expenditure over the same period, adds Hall. "The companies have invested no net additional shareholder funds ... since privatization," he writes. 

Companies also failed to invest enough in wastewater infrastructure, according to Jamie Woodward, professor of physical geography at the University of Manchester. They "allow huge volumes of untreated wastewater and sewage to be dumped into our rivers and coastal waters ... countless urban rivers are now effectively extensions of the sewerage network," he adds. 

The 301,091 storm overflows reported by the Environment Agency in England last year were 19% fewer than the year before. But that was largely because of dry weather rather than better utility performance, says Executive Ddirector John Leyland. "We want to see quicker progress from water companies on reducing spills," he adds.