Another year. Another multi-million pound water co. fine
As you know, or at least I hope you know, I try to be fair
to our water companies. It is easy to get all bent out of shape in
anti-capitalist/anti-privatisation rage as another water company is hauled
into court, as Southern Water was last week to be handed down a £90m fine
for pollution to the coastal waters of southern England.
As I say, I try to be fair. Recently I’ve written in praise
of the new reservoir, a first in my lifetime for the chalkstream region, in
Hampshire. Likewise, I’ve supported the controversial Southampton Water
desalination plant which will also provide life support to our precious
rivers at the critical time of year when water demand is at its highest and
river flows at their lowest.
Combined these two projects will set Southern Water back
some £200m plus. Yes, I know the bill payer will ultimately foot most of
the cost but I don’t have a problem with that. However, I do have a problem
with the public attitude to the cost of water. Depressingly a recent survey
in the West Country rated broadband a more essential service than water.
Try to work that one out.
Yes, this really does happen ......
And for some reason the general public opinion is that water
should be as close to free as possible and governments have reflected this
in downward regulatory pressure on the cost of water and, by association as
usually the same company does both, the treatment of sewage.
Yes, there is no excuse for Southern Water’s flagrant breach
of law. It is worth reading what Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson said sentencing
the privatised water company,
“These offences show a shocking and wholesale disregard for
the environment, for precious and delicate ecosystems and coastlines, for human
health, and for fisheries and other legitimate businesses that operate in
the coastal waters.” He went on to say the company had a history of
criminal activity for its “previous and persistent pollution of the
environment”. It had 168 previous offences and cautions but had ignored
these and not altered its behaviour. “There is no evidence the company took
any notice of the penalties imposed or the remarks of the courts. Its
offending simply continued.”
However, though it in no way excuses the awful behaviour of
Southern Water and their like, the UK water companies have been screwed to
the floor by successive governments since the privatisation of 1989. Had
the average water/sewage bill kept pace with inflation in the intervening
32 years it would stand at £712. In fact, it is £415, just 9% of your
average combined household bills.
It strikes me as strange that gas and electricity bills
(average £1,254) include various ‘green’ levies that amount to about £300
to save the planet. But for water we have gone in exactly the opposite
direction, content to save money despite the manifest home-grown pollution
of our rivers and coastline. Just imagine, for a moment, if water
bills had kept pace with inflation, regardless of any additional water
purity levy. That would be an extra £8.4bn a year. I can’t tell you what
that would mean in terms of improved sewage treatment but I can tell you
that its enough money to build enough desalination plants and reservoirs to
supply every single household in Britain in just three years.
So, yes, I hang my head in despair at yet another Southern
Water fine on top of the £126m fine in 2019 and £12m in 2011. I read the
contrite message from the CEO (salary £1.1m in 2019/20 inc. £585K bonus)
that lessons will be learnt; it is a boilerplate of the one written by a
previous CEO in 2011.
But, ultimately, the water companies are just functionaries.
For our rivers to be pure and our coastal waters blue it will take
political will. The argument has to be made that good water is worth paying
Like Father. Like
I was genuinely sad to hear that Galileo, father of Frankel,
had died on Saturday. I only met him the once, at the Coolmore Stud in
Tipperary, Ireland which had been his home for 19 of his 23 years.
I had, what I guess you would call, a private audience with
him on an May day back in 2018. It was mid-morning at the height of the
covering season and Galileo was between duties. He was slighter in frame
than his famous son, that perhaps in part a reflection of his gathering
years. He was, however, considerably more social than Frankel who bristles
energy and gets bored in a nanosecond.
But Galileo just stood before me, seemingly amused by my
inability to know what to do when you meet arguably the greatest stallion
of all time. Let’s face it you can hardly ask him a question. But you do
get to pat him. Look him in the eye. Try to figure how those invisible
genes have so totally dominated the thoroughbred breed for nearly two
decades, as his father Sadler’s Wells did before and, in all likelihood,
his son Frankel will in the future.
He was, apparently, oblivious to it all my uselessness content
to jangle the brass chain that attached the leading rein to his head collar
over his tongue and between his teeth by way of passing the time until I’d
had my fill of admiration.
If you are not into horse racing it is hard to put into
context how dominant the Galileo bloodline has become. If I tell you that
his offspring have won 91 Group 1 races around the globe you might
understandably shrug. But that is a bit like you having a child in each of
the next twenty years, with each of those children picking up two out of
four tennis or golf majors in each of those twenty years. Plus, the odd one
or two who wins an Olympic Gold. And maybe a World Cup. Oh, and yes, best
not to forget the £700m in stud fees you collected along the way.
And strangely, based on his racecourse performances alone,
you would not have anticipated this scale of stud success for Galileo. Yes,
he won the Epsom Derby but you would struggle to make a case to put him in
a list of the top 50 racehorses of all time.
But that is the eternal conundrum of the thoroughbred
business. If it was as simple as putting the best mare to the best colt
based in racing performance then anyone could do that particular bit of
maths. And indeed, they do. And occasionally it does work. But mostly it
doesn’t. As they like to say in breeding circles: put the best to the best
and hope for the best.
We, at the other end of a life, often say at the passing of
sporting heroes we’ll never see the like again. And, indeed, the passing of
Galileo is deeply sad. But he will have a crop of foals next year, who will
reach the racecourse in 2024 and be racing well into the 2030’s – the
stallion legacy is long. But in Frankel, already breaking records set by
his father, we may well see the like of Galileo again. Only time will tell.
The tale of the reckless crayfish
I am sure you read the report last week that emanated from
research in the Czech Republic that brown trout were at risk of becoming
addicted to the party drug methamphetamine even when subjected to the
relatively low concentration that might be found in a UK river.
Unlike people who become more uninhibited and active, meth
has the opposite effect on brown trout who become lethargic. It is
certainly a new excuse for a bad day on the river. But unlike trout, signal
crayfish become more active displaying what the researchers call ‘reckless’
behaviour. The thought of a reckless crayfish conjures up all sorts of
images but in fact they simply hunt for food more vigorously putting them
in danger of predators. I guess we might consider that a good thing …...
But joking aside a sidebar to one of the press reports to
the meth story reminded me of the Kings College 2019 report on five Suffolk
rivers which identified freshwater shrimps containing cocaine, ketamine,
methamphetamine, pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs.
As the report said at the time you might expect these drugs
in an urban river but not rural Suffolk. In fact, the analysis found 56
substances including, most worryingly, pesticides that have been long
banned from UK use. Agriculture is, by the way, responsible for 40% of all
Both reports bring us back full circle to the sewage crisis.
Even when companies like Southern Water are treating waste in the manner
set down by regulation, they are doing it with outmoded technology;
settlement tanks and their like are throwbacks to Victorian times. A
hundred years ago the waste from your home was largely organic; I hardly
dare say this but plenty of fish thrived on it!
However, today the chemicals and drugs, both legal and
illegal, are something completely different requiring the re-engineering of
sewage plants with complex ‘scrubbing’ technology to purify the water
before it is returned to the rivers or the sea.
The question we need to ask is whether there is the
political will to make this happen?
The normal random collection of
questions inspired by the date, events or topics in the Newsletter.
It is just for fun with answers at the
bottom of the page.
1) Name one of the two centuries in which Galileo,
Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer, lived.
2) Which Apollo mission launched on this day in 1969
taking men to the moon for the first time?
3) Which home nation has never produced a winner of the
British Open Golf Championship.