Environment

Sewage spills: Customers could receive hundreds of millions in compensation as water companies face new lawsuit

Water companies are being accused of "serial and serious" underreporting of sewage spills

Sewage is being discharged hundreds of times a day into the UK's waterways. Image: Richard Szwejkowski/Flickr

Water companies are being sued for hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation over claims they have ripped off customers by underreporting sewage spills.

By failing to properly report spills in rivers, lakes, and seas, the case alleges, water companies have been able to avoid fines and charge higher prices to customers for removing and treating wastewater.

The class action case is being brought on behalf of 20 million households by Professor Carolyn Roberts, an academic specialising in water resource management, and the law firm Leigh Day.

With sewage being spilled into the UK’s waterways hundreds of times a day, the Environment Agency has accused water companies of ‘wilfully misleading’ the public over their attempts to stem the flow. There have also been calls for the worst polluters to face prison time

“As a result of the serial and serious under-reporting at the heart of these claims, water companies have been avoiding being penalised by Ofwat. I believe this has resulted in consumers being unfairly overcharged for sewage services,” said Roberts.

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Customers of six water companies have been told they may be entitled to compensation if they have paid a bill since April 2020.

Those firms are: Thames Water, United Utilities, Severn Trent, Yorkshire Water, Northumbrian Water, and Anglian Water.

Water companies must report sewage discharges to Ofwat, the regulator. Ofwat takes these spills into account when deciding the prices companies are able to charge – with prices lowered if targets are not met.

Leigh Day has analysed information from water companies, obtained under Environmental Information Regulations, against submissions to the regulator, and claims the two sets of spillage data do not match up.

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Filing the claims in the Competition Appeal Tribunal, Roberts is arguing the companies hold a monopoly and have been abusing this position to mislead regulators.

Campaigners have argued the case, if successful, could force water companies to change their business model.

“The fines currently faced by the water industry are pathetic and simply accepted and absorbed as a business cost by water companies,” Amy Slack, campaign manager at River Action told The Big Issue.

“If successful, the significant financial implications of these cases will make water companies reconsider their business model and address the sewage scandal and force government to refund the regulators to hold polluters to account.”

More information on the claim, including a way to check if you are eligible, can be found here.

The Big Issue is keen to hear how you’ve been affected by sewage spills. If you have, get in touch with us at letters@bigissue.com.

In response to the lawsuit, A Yorkshire Water spokesperson told The Big Issue: “We are aware of an alleged claim being pursued by Leigh Day solicitors. Given the nature of the proposed proceedings, it would be inappropriate for us to comment any further.”

Anglian Water, United Utilities, and Northumbrian Water said they had no comment beyond the following, issued by Water UK, which represents the water industry.

“This highly speculative claim is entirely without merit,” a Water UK spokesperson said.

“The regulator has confirmed that over 99% of sewage works comply with their legal requirements. If companies fail to deliver on their commitments, then customer bills are already adjusted accordingly.”

A spokesperson for Severn Trent told The Big Issue: “This is a highly speculative claim with no merit which we strongly refute. Should pollutions ever occur, they are always reported to the Environment Agency. Any claim to the contrary is wholly and completely wrong.

“Our regulators, the Environment Agency and Ofwat, set strict targets and performance measures that deliver for our customers and the environment. Severn Trent is recognised as a sector leader by both regulators across operational and environmental measures. We consistently deliver for our customers, and recently received the highest 4* status for environmental performance from the Environment Agency for the fourth year running.”

A spokesperson for Thames Water told The Big Issue: “Thames Water Utilities Limited is aware of a claim threatened by Professor Carolyn Roberts. Thames Water Utilities Limited has engaged cooperatively with Professor Roberts to explain that the threatened claim is without merit. No claim has yet been issued against Thames.”

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