Prioritise practical green policies

Water companies have complained of a "vicious cycle" of fines
Water companies have complained of a "vicious cycle" of fines

The crusade for net-zero carbon emissions tends to overlook environmental matters of arguably much more immediate interest to the public. While ministers and officials draw up complex and expensive plans to restructure Britain along decarbonised lines, voters would be forgiven for thinking that issues like the state of the nation’s waterways are neglected.

Many of the country’s water companies, responsible for the water and sewage infrastructure, are in financial trouble, and regulators are reported to be considering a new “recovery regime” to help them escape a “vicious cycle” of fines that could worsen their difficulties. This could give the companies less stringent targets for reducing leaks and the amount of sewage pumped into rivers and seas. In return, the suppliers would be expected to invest more money in infrastructure improvements.

Any move that looks like it is giving the water firms an easier time is bound to be controversial, given the level of hostility that has grown towards the privatised utilities. Some critics have already reacted furiously, arguing that it would turn Ofwat, the regulator, into a “lackey” of the companies. However, any plan for improving the water quality of Britain’s rivers and seas needs to be realistic about the costs involved. Customers are unlikely to be happy if they are passed on in considerably higher bills.

At the very least, there should be a reassessment of whether the many billions now spent each year on environmental policies are being directed towards the public’s priorities. Practical improvements should surely come ahead of abstract targets.