OPINION - Will the government be forced to hold its nose and nationalise Thames Water?

 (Christian Adams)
(Christian Adams)

In his bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly referenced the '10,000-Hour Rule', based on research by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson. Despite its subsequent controversy, the rule's premise is in someways fairly pedestrian: achieving greatness in any skill requires time and effort.

Therefore, the Beatles practised endlessly in Hamburg before they found worldwide fame, a young Bill Gates sat in front of a computer for years prior to co-founding Microsoft, and so on. And today, Thames Water can boast something similar – and in just a single year.

As our chief political correspondent Rachel Burford reveals, the company pumped nearly 10,000 litres of sewage into London's rivers in 2023, up from almost 7,000 litres reported the year before. It comes as Thames Water customers saw bills rise an average of 12.1 per cent this week, with the firm declining to rule out future increases as it faces financial disaster.

Yet as Thames Water pumps sewage into the capital's waterways, its shareholders are less keen on cash injections. Last week, they backed out of plans to provide the company with £500m of funding, raising fears of a costly taxpayer bailout. Shareholders blamed regulator Ofwat for making its plan “uninvestible”, but have also accusations of trying to “blackmail” it into accepting demands to raise bills by 40 per cent.

A Thames Water spokesperson said the firm regards "any untreated discharges as unacceptable" and blamed "above average rainfall for most of 2023" for today's grim figures. But residents of South Moreton claim that the company allowed untreated water to pump into the Thames in Oxfordshire for 53 days consecutively. If you're so inclined, check out the real-time storm discharge map. It's not pretty.

The South Moreton issue has been caused be overflow at a local sewage treatment works, caused by cracks and holes in pipes, something the Environment Agency has described as an "asset maintenance issue". An upgrade is planned to be completed by 2026 and Thames Water says it expects the location to "meet all government targets for storm overflows by 2040 - 2045.” Which sounds a lot like me putting off work on a Friday afternoon so I have to do it on the Monday morning. But the Monday in question is in 2040 to 2045.

One likely option at this point looks like a form of nationalisation, similar to the 'special administration' that befell energy provider Bulb. Indeed, Thames Water has hired advisers from the same firm that worked on Bulb. But none of this will come cheap, with some estimates placing the bill at £5bn. Which means higher taxes and bills into the future.

In quieter times, this colossal failure might even be a general election issue. As it is, voters who notice may simply add it to their ballad of discontent.