Friday, 16 July 2021

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 for.



Like Father. Like Son.


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. 



Galileo 1998-2021


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 water pollution.


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?



Feeling reckless?





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.



Simon Cooper

Founder & Managing




Quiz answers:


1) 16th or 17th. He lived 1564-1642.

2) Apollo 11

3) Wales. Scotland (41), England (22) and Northern Ireland (3)

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