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Sewerage: Trouble downstream

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The cartoon above is the fourth in a series created by Steve Way exclusively for H&P. We will be publishing more of them over the coming days as part of our election coverage If posting them on social media please acknowledge Steve Way and H&P. For permission to reproduce in books or articles please contact Steve at:


Today, Friday 14 June, midway through the UK general election campaign, the BBC released the results of an investigation which suggested the water companies may have illegally discharged sewerage into rivers and the sea 6000 times in the course of 2022. Although they are allowed to do so when it rains (in order to prevent flooding), the practice is prohibited when the weather is dry.

The story, which could well heighten voter concerns about the country’s crumbling infrastructure, is further bad news for the Conservative Party. But it poses a serious challenge for the next government. Labour’s manifesto promise to put failing water companies under ‘special measures’ and increase the power of the regulators could do something to ameliorate the problem, but may well be insufficient to resolve the broader structural issues. And a Labour government constrained by its own strict fiscal commitments is unlikely to want to take on the costs of nationalising and investing properly in the water companies.

As Ian Cawood and Sir Albert Bore have suggested, policymakers might do well to reflect on Joseph Chamberlain’s record as Mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s. The city council bought up and invested in local utilities, using the resulting income streams to provide money for civil improvements. While economic conditions are very different 150 years later, there may be clues here as to how revitalised local and regional governmental structures with proper revenue raising powers might provide solutions to a problem that national political leaders seem unable to grasp.


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