Local MPs Criticise Thames Water in the Commons

Andy Slaughter and Ruth Cadbury raise local issues in water industry debate

Andy Slaughter MP -"Thames Water does not appear to be able to run a tap"
Andy Slaughter MP -"Thames Water does not appear to be able to run a tap"

December 8, 2023

Two local MPs participated in a debate in the House of Commons on the water industry this week with both being harshly critical of the performance of Thames Water.

Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter and Brentford & Isleworth MP Ruth Cadbury were responding to a motion calling for action on pollution of waterways and excessive bonuses to water company executives at firms responsible for sewage leaks.

It was moved by Steve Reed Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Tuesday afternoon (5 December).

Mr Slaughter gave a speech about his constituents’ experiences with Thames Water and the management of the company pointing out that only the previous evening there had been an interruption in the water supply in the West Kensington area and, when residents raised the matter with Thames Water, they received a garbled and unhelpful reply.

He then raised the three-day interruption in supply that took place in the Shepherd’s Bush and East Acton areas the previous month which saw residents without water and receiving no updates from Thames Water. Mr Slaughter said he was forced to visit the site of the leaks himself to report back to his constituents.

He added, “These massive breaks in pipes happen all the time. I think I know why they happen: it is because Thames does not maintain its pipes, and the pressure means that they burst. We often get a number of bursts at one time, and then it can spend up to a month or more repairing them, which involves digging up the road and shutting off roads. In that way, it is a law unto itself.

“That is equally the case with sewer flooding. Two and a half years ago, there was heavy rain in London, and hundreds of my constituents’ homes, basements and ground floors were flooded with raw sewage. For some of those properties, it was the third or fourth time it had happened. When it happened back in the 2000s, there was the Counters Creek flood alleviation scheme. It cost several hundred million pounds and was going to relieve sewer flooding in west London. I spent many hours in many meetings talking to Thames Water and constituents about how it was going to relieve the problem. Frankly, I cannot think of a much worse problem someone could have than to live with the risk of their house being flooded with raw sewage, whether it comes through the front door, up through the toilet, or whatever.”

He went on to criticise the company for not installing non-return valves or FLIPs—flooding local improvement processes which stop the sewage going back up a pipe when there is heavy rain. FLIPs are slightly more sophisticated and are pumps that are buried under the roadway.

He said, “They cost a fraction of the cost of a major renovation scheme and would therefore have saved Thames Water a considerable amount of money. Ten years on, and two and a half years after the last significant floods, very few of those things have been fitted. When residents apply for them, the answer is that they are low risk, even though some of the people who are at a low risk have had their homes flooded more than once. To my mind, that is no more than a cost-saving exercise and doing the bare minimum.”

He did praise the Tideway (Super Sewer) project which is more or less on time and on budget despite the pandemic and will relieve about 95% of the raw sewage going into the Thames. One of the worst outflows is at Hammersmith pumping station, and the MP referred to the spouts of sewage shooting out of the ground near Hammersmith Bridge a few years ago.

However, he continued, “Thames Water does not appear to be able to run a tap, to flush a toilet or to manage its own finances. The company is partly owned by the Governments of China and Abu Dhabi. Last summer it summarily got rid of its chief executive, despite paying her £1.5 million a year. The company announced with a fanfare that it had managed to obtain £500 million of new investment from its shareholders, but according to the Financial Times last week—this is reported again today—the actual status of that money may well be a loan rather than equity or new investment. That, I hope, is something the Government will want to look into.

“There have been a series of asset-stripping, incompetent, careless owners of Thames Water during the period of privatisation, the worst of which was probably Macquarie, which owned it for 11 years and paid out an estimated £3 billion in dividends. Its senior executives took huge payments in the tens of million over that time, and are now living a life of luxury as a consequence. That is the legacy of privatisation and this Government’s record on private utilities.”

He pointed to press reports saying that the company, which now has debt totalling £14billion, may run out of funds next Spring and appears to be asking to increase bills by 40%

He has not been impressed with the government’s response to the problem saying, “I heard an extraordinarily wittering, complacent speech from the Minister Rebecca Pow just now. There was no grasp of the risks. A major company could go under, with a failure to supply a basic service. What more basic service is there than the supply of water and sewerage services to a large part of the population in this country? There was no understanding of the risks or what the remedies need to be.”

His line of argument was taken up by Ruth Cadbury who said, “My constituents are not only bill payers and users of Thames Water, but they live with its decades-long failure to plan and invest. The River Thames flows alongside Chiswick, Brentford and Isleworth, where we walk, kayak, row and paddleboard. Too often, the Thames is polluted with dilute sewage just about every time it rains. Mogden sewage treatment works, covering 55 acres, sits in my constituency. For decades, Mogden has been a regular source of pungent sewage smells and a virulent subspecies of mosquito.”

Ruth Cadbury in the House of Commons
Ruth Cadbury in the House of Commons

She told the House about the flooding of the streets and parks of Isleworth and the pristine Duke of Northumberland’s river with raw undiluted sewage in February 2020, because the main sewage intake into Mogden backed up and punched a hole through into the river. In October 2020, she said that 2 billion litres of dilute sewage was discharged into the River Thames at Isleworth Ait over just two days and on 2022, that same sewer storm outflow spilled 20 times for a total of 164 hours, discharging again into the River Thames. Despite this she has not been able to find any evidence that Thames Water was fined for these discharges.

She continued, “The overall picture of our water situation in the Thames Water area is a failure of oversight—a failure to upgrade the water and sewage infrastructure continually as London’s population grows, and as drought and heavy rain become regular aspects of our weather. For over 20 years—first as a councillor, and as an MP since 2015—I have been pressuring Thames Water to take action, as have the Mogden Residents’ Action Group, Hounslow London Borough Council and other residents. As a result of a legal challenge by residents, Thames Water was forced to increase the capacity of the sewage treatment works, to improve its reporting and to do continuous mosquito eradication.”

She pointed out that her constituents living upstream of Hammersmith will not directly benefit from the Tideway project but will see the effect of the Teddington water extraction project which will take millions of litres of water from the Thames, pump it across London to the Lee valley, and then replace that water with treated effluent from Mogden.

Ms Cadbury concluded by saying, “Why should my hard-pressed constituents face an average increase of £39 in their water bills? They have lost trust in Thames Water after years and years of scandal, putting up with smells, mosquitoes, building works, flooding and sewage through their streets and parks. Having met and talked to Thames Water for almost 20 years as a councillor and an MP, it is clear to me that it still has a lot to do to clean up its act. Bills are rising, service standards remain poor, and we continue to see raw sewage being pumped into the Thames.”

In response for the government Rebecca Pow, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said, “As I have said constantly, all sewage in our waterways is completely and utterly unacceptable. I am pleased to have this opportunity to put on record the huge strides that we have made to deliver clean water for customers and the environment. We are the party for nature. We are the party that brought forward the Environment Act 2021, although many of the measures in it were not supported by Opposition Members. It is a globally leading piece of legislation. If the hon. Gentleman went out on to the global stage, he would realise that we are revered for it, and we now have the whole framework in place to deliver what it states. There are many measures in it to tackle water.”

She added that her department was acting on bonuses and dividends saying, “The Government have taken unprecedented measures to bring into balance the remuneration of water company executives. This summer, Ofwat confirmed new plans to ensure that customers no longer fund executive bonus payments if companies have not met Ofwat’s expectations on environmental performance. Ofwat will regularly review executive bonus payments and, when companies do not meet expectations, step in to ensure that customers do not pick up the bill.”

A Thames Water spokesperson said after the debate, “It’s critical that we keep the taps flowing for Londoners, especially during drought and prolonged hot weather. We predict that we’ll need an extra 1 billion litres of water every day by 2050 to meet customer demand, expected population growth and climate change.

“The Teddington Direct River Abstraction project is designed to protect water security for future generations and will enable the us to abstract more water from the River Thames during periods of drought, supported by water recycling.

“We want to reassure local people that the proposed scheme isn’t any different to the normal water supply system and is designed to safeguard the river’s water quality.   

“The scheme will work by putting highly treated recycled water from Mogden Sewage Treatment Works, through an additional stage of treatment. This would ensure we protect the river’s water quality and would also compensate for the additional water abstracted during a drought.    

“The Environment Agency will set the discharge standards to protect the quality of the river water and we will need to comply with these.   

“We are listening to the community and are committed to work openly and transparently. We are seeking public views on potential sites for the new structures, pipelines and shafts we think would be needed for the project, with our latest consultation open until 11 December. Feedback from this public consultation will shape ongoing project design.”

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