Our open letter to the new Prime Minister and Environment Secretary

8 July 2024

On the 35th anniversary of water privatisation we sent an open letter to our new government, calling for a root-and-branch review of the water industry. The Guardian has featured the letter today, which has been signed by an array of campaigning groups, academics, and celebrities, and you can read it in full here:

Dear Prime Minister Keir Starmer and Secretary of State Steve Reed,

Saturday 6th July marked 35 years since the Water Act 1989 established our current model of water and sewage management, including privatisation and top-down regulation.

The system has clearly failed.

Bills have risen at twice the rate of inflation. No new drinking reservoirs have been delivered. A quarter of our supply leaks out of our pipes. Debts are unpaid; plans ‘uninvestable.’ And last year, operators released sewage for over 3 million hours into our rivers and seas.

Your election offers a chance to set things right. But if the current failed model remains in place, Labour could be fighting the next election with some bills topping £915 a year and sewage a greater threat to our health than ever.

In just four days, Ofwat will sign off draft plans from the water and sewage companies, including their investment plans and proposals for a further 26% real increase in bills over the next 5 years.

Water companies are in environmental and financial crisis. Every penny of investment to date has been covered by our bills. The public and our rivers and seas must not be asked to bailout failing shareholders, through higher bills, lower standards, or state-restructuring.

We are asking you to pause the current price setting process and start a root-and-branch public review of ownership and regulation immediately, including consultation with water campaigners, trade union representatives, and bills payers. We call for an interim decision in your first 100 days to unlock funding for urgent projects during the remaining review stages and transition phase.

The current model is not delivering higher or cheaper investment against alternatives, with new research suggesting £85 billion has been extracted from the industry since privatisation.

No other country in the world runs water and sewage in the way we do: 90 per cent is publicly owned and delivered. We believe a review of ownership, including devolving ownership to regional authorities, must be included.

Regulation has been flawed, captured, and underfunded: a constant threat of the current model. Accountability must be reviewed, including putting community representatives on company boards and using “sunshine regulation” to deliver greater transparency.

Charles Watson, Chair and Founder of River Action UK, has already warned MPs: “someone is going to die.” We simply do not have time to waste.

Please, immediately begin a root-and-branch review of water ownership and regulation and pause the failed Ofwat price setting process until an indicative decision is made in your first 100 days.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Fry

Joe Lycett

Michael Rosen

Nish Kumar

Samuel West

Rosie Holt

Dr Doug Parr, Policy Director, Greenpeace UK

James Wallace, Chief Executive, River Action UK

Mark Lloyd, CEO, The Rivers Trust

Dani Jordan, Director of Campaigns and Communities, Surfers Against Sewage

Hugo Tagholm, Executive Director, Oceana UK

Cat Hobbs, Director, We Own It

Ed Acteson, Co-Founder, SOS Whitstable

Ash Smith, Co-Founder, Windrush Against Sewage Pollution

Prof. Becky Malby, Campaigner, Ilkley Clean River Campaign

Deborah Meara, Campaigner, Save Our Swale

Katy Colley, Co-Founder, Boycott Water Bills

Dr Felicity Laurence, Co-Founder, Hastings Boycotts Southern Water

Chris Dady, Chair, Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (Norfolk)

Paul Steedman, Director, Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (Sussex)

Alan Smith, Managing Director, Water-People Ltd

Simon Coop, National Officer (Energy & Utilities), Unite

Gary Carter, National Officer, GMB

Kathy Whysall, Member, Oxford Rivers Improvement Campaign

The Henley Mermaids

Take Back Water



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Cliff replied on Permalink

I have 40 years service in Thames water and have been fighting the fat cats since 1989 . I am also a member off the national water forum and branch secretary of the GMB union in solidarity cliff roney

Michael Quinn replied on Permalink

It is a disgrace what is being dumped into our rivers and waterways. The newly elected government should take action immediately.

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