• UK Election 2024: Labour manifesto calls for stronger regulation of water companies

Sewage Monitoring

UK Election 2024: Labour manifesto calls for stronger regulation of water companies

Jun 20 2024

For many of us in the sector, it still feels surreal that water quality has become such a decisive political issue, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats making it a key part of their offering to the public at this year’s general election. Even more strange, the Labour Party’s recently released manifesto calls directly for a change to the monitoring regime, shifting the balance of power over monitoring from professionals employed by the utilities to those employed by an independent regulator. 

Such measures adhere to the general theme of Labour’s proposals: strengthen the regulators. For instance, the Party claimed in a statement at the end of March that if Ofwat had had the extended powers they pledge, it ‘could have blocked six out of nine bosses’ bonuses last year’. Relatedly, this more omnipotent regulator would have the ability to impose – and this is verbatim from the manifesto – ‘automatic and severe fines for wrongdoing’. In that March statement, this phrase packs a bit more bite: ‘...fines that water companies can’t afford to ignore’. But it’s not only a turbo-charged version of our current fine-based system, some real teeth are promised in the form of ‘criminal charges against persistent law breakers.’  

But the headline, of course, is that ‘Labour will put failing water companies under special measures to clean up our water.’ Since special measures is a status typically applied to public services when they come under increased oversight from their regulators, it seems fair to say that this is a sort of halfway house between privatisation and nationalisation – much like the Liberal Democrats’ offer to turn the water firms into public benefit companies. In fact, given that Labour's proposal only applies to ‘failing water companies’, it’s far less of a sweeping change than the Liberal Democrats seem to have in mind.  

What’s left are insinuations and implications, but some of these indicate further convergence with the Liberal Democrats: particularly, both parties seem to be interested in facilitating a more active role for citizen science, which has formed a vanguard in the fight against poor river quality in the UK. In introducing its environmental programme, the manifesto claims that a Labour government ‘will work in partnership with civil society, communities and business to restore and protect our natural world.’ With the Liberal Democrats in sight of 50 seats, their manifesto commitment to ‘Giving local environmental groups a place on water companies’ boards’ will carry weight in the Commons, adding some needed detail to Labour’s vague suggestions. Potentially, then, this election could result in greater influence and power for the citizen scientists that have proven themselves so essential in environmental monitoring. 

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