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London's great stink: Sewage flowed into capital's rivers for almost 10,000 hours last year

MPs accused the Government of letting Thames Water get away with polluting while threatening to increase bills (Christian Adams)
MPs accused the Government of letting Thames Water get away with polluting while threatening to increase bills (Christian Adams)

Sewage flowed into London’s rivers for almost 10,000 hours last year, the Evening Standard can reveal.

Startling figures show that waste was dumped into the capital’s waterways for more than 9,773 hours — up significantly from the nearly 7,000 hours reported in 2022.

It comes as Thames Water customers saw bills rise an average of 12.1 per cent this week, with bosses at the troubled company refusing to rule out future increases of up to 40 per cent as it struggles with debts and interest payments.

MPs slammed the figures, accusing the Government of letting Thames Water get away with polluting while threatening to increase bills.

Richmond Park MP Sarah Olney said it was “alarming”.

The Liberal Democrat added: “For years, ministers have turned a blind eye while Thames Water has pumped billions of litres of filthy sewage into our rivers and streams.

“It is time the Government cracked down on these polluting giants and put an end to this stinking practice.

“Ministers must immediately use their special powers to put Thames Water into special administration and reform it into a public benefit company. That’s the best way to ensure this polluting giant cleans up its act.”

There is growing outrage at water companies’ failure to tackle sewage discharge into the UK’s rivers and seas (Environment Agency)
There is growing outrage at water companies’ failure to tackle sewage discharge into the UK’s rivers and seas (Environment Agency)

The party has called for a parliamentary debate on winding up the biggest privatised English water company under legislation that has recently been updated by ministers.

Thames Water oversaw a total of 3,007 individual sewage spills into London’s rivers last year, according to data from the House of Commons library commissioned by the Lib Dems.

The Thames, which saw 1,180 spills lasting a total of 4,457 hours, was the worst affected.

The Roding, which flows through Essex and forms Barking Creek as it reaches the Thames, had the second highest number with 416 sewage leaks for a total of 1,319 hours.

Other rivers impacted include the Graveney and Dollis Brook, both of which suffered more than 100 spills in 2023.

Oxford rowing team captain Leonard Jenkins complained about waste in the Thames after losing to Cambridge in the boat race over the weekend.

He said it “would be a lot nicer if there wasn’t as much poo in the water”.

It followed research which found high levels of E.coli were in the parts of the river used for the annual race.

Thames Water has pumped at least 72 billion litres of sewage into rivers since 2020, data shows. Its shareholders last week backed out of plans to inject £500 million of funding, sparking concerns that a government bailout costing the taxpayer billions would be needed.

Thursday’s Evening Standard Front Page (Evening Standard)
Thursday’s Evening Standard Front Page (Evening Standard)

Thames Water, which serves 15 million households, mostly across London and parts of southern England, said its shareholders withheld the vital money because demands by regulators left its business plan “uninvestable”.

Ofwat wants the firm to clean up its act and improve customer service.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said “the answer is not to hit consumers” and that “successive management teams at Thames Water had “taken advantage” of customers by “taking out profits and not investing”.

A company spokesman said: “We regard any untreated discharges as unacceptable, and we’re committed to stopping them from being necessary, with the assistance of our regulators.

“Storm discharges are closely linked to rainfall and groundwater conditions and our region experienced above average rainfall for most of 2023, which saw an increase in the frequency and duration of storm discharges from our sites compared to 2022.

“We’re taking action to reduce discharges and have led the industry in this area with the building of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a £4.5 billion investment, which is nearing completion and will remove 24 combined sewer overflows from the tidal Thames.

“This project, alongside previous upgrades to our London sewage treatment sites and the £700 million connection from Abbey Mills pumping station to our sewage treatment works at Beckton (the Lee Tunnel) which has been in operation since 2016, will capture 95 per cent of the volume of untreated sewage currently entering the tidal Thames in a typical year.”

The Ten Worst London Rivers

River

Hours of sewage discharges in 2023

Thames

4,457

Roding

1,319

Ingrebourne

530

Mayes Brook

383

Graveney

295

Wandle

279

Silk Stream & Edgware Brook

225

Lower Brent

192

Hogsmill

190

Ching Brook

188