Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister for International Trade 28th October 2021 Blog Share Tweet That not a single river in England meets an acceptable standard of environmental health isn’t just of huge concern for the ecological and natural wellbeing of our waterways, but is further symptomatic of a broken water and sewage system in our country. The public uproar over the quality of our rivers and coasts in the face of Government intransigence on attempts to take action to clean them up is understandable, but to properly address this crisis we must go further to address the root of the problem. At its core is an expensive, unfair, and unaccountable system of privatised water companies for whom the interests of distant investors trump any consideration of environmental and ecological concern. Since privatisation dividend payments at these water companies have been significant, at an average of £200m a year per company – almost £2bn a year in total. Over the past 30 years or so, at least £48bn has gone directly to shareholders. And where higher consumer bills and underinvestment in the infrastructure led, the recent furore about the levels of raw sewage being dumped into our waterways continues to demonstrate that these profits will continue to be a priority over customers and the wider environment. That’s why we have to go further, and only a change in ownership of our water industry will bring the required shift in priorities to make the sector fit for the environmental challenges we face. We can do this by introducing mutual models within the English water industry, where companies will continue to operate in the private sector but are instead owned by their consumers and employees. Here we can learn from Glas Cymru who provide water and wastewater infrastructure in Wales, with democratic ownership by consumers and employees without paying dividends to shareholders. This ownership model forces it to operate in the interests of consumers; where environmental considerations such as disposal of sewage would take precedence over profit. Such a step in England would require the formation of consumer and employee trusts, with the power to appoint non-executive directors to water company boards to make informed and independent decisions. Over time, as consumer and employee interests are prioritised over quick financial returns, equity investors will seek to sell up because they recognise that they can no longer make a fast buck, and the trusts could use bond issues to buy those equity investors’ stakes in the business, backed up by a government guarantee and legislation to embed the not-for-profit principle and an asset lock to prevent future demutualisation. The same trusts would subsequently allow consumers and the workforce to have an active role in the decisions made by their organisation, and in the long run through mutualisation the water industry through would redress the errors of privatisation. Only then, with these mutualised assets locked in democratic public ownership against future sell-off can we safeguard the water industry in the public interest, with the environmental and ecological wellbeing of our waterway given priority over private profit.