Scottish Water agreed to keep prices in line with inflation due to a request from the Scottish Government, but said this may impact its ability to meet agreed targets, including those on the long standing problem of overflowing sewers polluting rivers, lochs and seas.
Letters released under freedom of information law, show energy minister Michael Matheson wrote to Scottish Water’s chair, Susan Rice, on 1 February to request that it reconsider a planned rise in charges due to the “rapidly emerging cost of living context”.
Acknowledging Scottish Water had to address a “challenging set of objectives” which required “adequate financing”, he insisted the public body must reconsider a proposed price hike, to meet its commitment to fair and affordable changes.
A reply from board member Iain Lanaghan confirms the board has agreed to “revise” charges in line with inflation but said the decision had been “made with deep concern”.
“We recognise the financial pressures on households and businesses are likely to continue for some time and doubt whether it would be credible to suppress the charge increase for 2022/23 only to increase charges as a result by an even higher amount than previously envisaged”, he wrote.
He offered to work with Matheson and others “to explore the options” including “adjusting the obligations placed upon us”, expectations on their performance, or to approve future price rises.
Opposition politicians said it was “beyond belief” that Scottish Water had been so adamant about raising prices for customers in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, especially given the high levels of pay for senior staff.
Chief executive Duncan Millican received a total of £378k in 2020/21, with the public company’s three top executives netting a total of just under one million.
Campaign group We Own It said it was “troubling” to see the conditionality of the agreement made by Scottish Water.
The revelations come as new data from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) showed problems with Scotland’s ageing sewer network continue. It logged 10,892 sewage overflows by Scottish Water in 2021.
Campaigners said the “unacceptable figures” were the tip of the iceberg as only around 3 per cent of overflow sites are monitored. There are a total of over 3600 sewage overflow sites in Scotland, but Sepa monitored just 136 in 2021.
Scottish Water said these sites – which include ‘Combined Sewer Overflows’ (CSOs), ‘Emergency Overflows,’ and ‘Storm Sewage Overflows’ – are necessary to relieve pressure on the system at times of heavy rainfall.
When the sewage system is unable to deal with the combined volume of sewage and surface water which runs off roofs and gutters, a combination of the two “is released by an overflow pipe, which spills at designated points, into watercourses or the sea”.
Of the sites monitored, 33 reported over 100 overflow events in the year. This means that on average, nearly a quarter of sites saw an overflow at least once every four days.
Ten measurement sites – all located at sewage works – saw 250 or more overspills in 2021.
The worst performer last year was Stornoway Wastewater Treatment Works (WWTW), on Lewis, which recorded 647 overflow events. This was more than double the 290 overflows it recorded in 2020.
Other sewage works also saw increases in the number of overflows they recorded compared to 2020 – including facilities which discharge near sensitive environmental or fisheries sites.
Lochcarron WWTW saw 392 sewage overflows, up from 343 the previous year. The facility sits on the shore of Loch Carron, which was designated a marine protected area because it hosts the world’s largest known reef of flame shells – a rare, brightly coloured mollusc.
Tighnabruaich WWTW saw 379 overflows, a 50 percent increase on the previous year’s total of 245. Tighnabruaich has been designated as one of Scotland’s 40 ‘National Scenic Areas.’
Mauchline sewage works was again one of the largest sources of recorded spills, registering 306 at one of its measurement points – down slightly from 319 in 2020. The works sits on the River Ayr, which is popular with salmon and trout anglers and has two sites of special scientific interest.
Cat Hobbs, director of campaign group We Own It, said both the overflows and the reluctance to rein in prices were of concern.
“It is troubling to see that Scottish Water have agreed to the Scottish Government’s request to reduce price rises only on the premise that their obligations in relation to sewage overflows and net zero be relaxed,” she said.
“The public ownership of Scottish Water has been a great success, delivering lower bills, cleaner rivers and higher infrastructure investment than their privatised counterparts in England – cementing their status as the UK’s most trusted utility.
“But they must be careful not to fall into the trap of simply aping the ‘industry standard’ in England of increasing executive salaries to obscene levels while bills climb and sewage pours into rivers and seas. People in Scotland rightly expect better.”
Scottish Greens environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell said agencies needed to “step up efforts to tackle water pollution and better protect public health and the environment”.
“Sewage overflow targets are there for a reason and should not be used as a bargaining chip with ministers,” he added.
Labour Paul Sweeney MSP said: “It’s beyond belief that during a cost-of-living crisis, Scottish Water are adamant that they have no choice but to raise prices for customers, despite senior staff being on pay packages that the public can only dream of, as well as this publicly owned corporation sitting on a cash reserve of almost half a billion pounds.”
But he was also critical of the Scottish Government, adding: “Rather than meekly writing letters to Dame Susan Rice asking for any price rises to be delayed until October, when we know that gas and electric bills are likely to skyrocket again, the Minister Michael Matheson should be demanding that Scottish Water rules out price increases.
“[They need to] take direct responsibility for ageing infrastructure and problems being experienced by consumers, including regular incidents of sewage overspill.”
Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy for environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage said the figures were “the very tip of the shitburg”.
She added: “With only three per cent of sewage overflows monitored, it’s likely that sewage is being discharged into Scotland’s beautiful lochs, rivers and seas over a hundred thousand times. This is scandalous and has to stop.
“Water companies are causing havoc to nature and making swimmers, paddlers and surfers sick.”
Charles Watson, chair of environmental charity River Action said it was “shocking but not surprising” to see that sewage overflows continued to pollute Scotland’s rivers, lochs and seas.
“We need to see immediate action from Scottish Water that is policed effectively by properly resourced regulatory agencies,” he added.
A Scottish Water spokesperson claimed water quality in Scotland was “considerably higher than elsewhere in the UK and across much of Europe” and it had “invested heavily” in the last 20 years to deliver “substantial improvements”.
They added: “Scottish Water is committed to maintaining and investing in our critical water and waste water services, ensuring they remain affordable for our five million customers whilst also providing support to those who need it most.
“Significant future long-term investment is needed to secure those services as we deal with the challenges presented by ageing infrastructure and the impact of climate change on our services.
“We will continue to work with the Scottish Government, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland, and other sector stakeholders to ensure our services – vital to all our daily lives – provide real value to customers and the country.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are acutely aware of the cost of living crisis and remain committed to supporting people facing issues paying their water bills.”
The average water charges remain lower than the average in other parts of the UK, they said, adding: “While UK-wide energy prices have risen beyond inflation, in Scotland the increase to water charges for 2022-23 has been set at 4.2 per cent – in line with inflation.
“Keeping our water services in public ownership means that every pound raised is re-invested in our water industry. Scottish Water must balance affordability with the delivery of critical services when setting charges.”
An investment of £4.5bn to improve water services is planned from 2021-2027.
Photo Credit: 1/Ralf G5ithe.
This story was co-publisehd with the Sunday National.