Gripped by Polarization, U.K. Water Sector Needs Stability

8 Nov 2022  |  Ethan Edwards

The recent proposal by the British Environment Secretary to raise the maximum cap on civil penalties for water pollution incidents—a 1,000-fold increase from £250,000 up to £250 million per violation—now adds to the list of forces influencing the U.K. water sector. The October 3rd proposal was released the same day that British regulatory authorities announced eleven water companies in Britain will be fined £150 million (US$169 million) for failing to meet various water supply and quality targets.

These announcements land amid political upheaval—a fifth prime minister in six years—and amid economic turmoil in the wake of Brexit, COVID-19, and a weakening British pound. As such, water utilities, private investors, engineering firms, and the utility supply chain face economic headwinds and regulatory uncertainty in a mature market formerly viewed as an opportunity.

Given these political, economic, and regulatory shifts, it’s worth asking the question: how will the water sector be affected?

Heading toward AMP8 (2025–2030), digital poised to take on even greater role. Now in its seventh five-year cycle since full privatization in 1989, the U.K. water regulator’s (Ofwat) continued push for outcome-based approaches for municipal water & wastewater service providers, is revealing more signs of stress. According to Ofwat, U.K. water companies lost an average of 2,923.8 million liters of water per day in 2021, equating to 1.06 trillion liters over year, and discharged raw sewage into English waters 372,533 times over the same period.

As the water sector transitions toward Asset Management Proposal 8 (AMP8)—a five-year business management cycle regulated by Ofwat—more aggressive, innovative approaches to water management (i.e., digital technologies) will be critical to address the growing physical and financial stresses on UK water infrastructure renown for leakage and deterioration. According to Bluefield’s Global Digital Water Forecast, the U.K. digital water investment through 2030 is forecasted to top US$18.8 billion, behind European counterparts France and Germany. Compounded by rising cost of capital, an increased focus on costly climate-related mitigation, and economic turmoil, water utilities and their alliance partners will be forced to become more financially prudent.

A weak pound attracts outside investment. As the U.K. faces a myriad of challenges amid a weakening pound, opportunities for outside investment in the water sector are materializing. In September of this year, after an economic plan including tax cuts was unveiled in the House of Commons, the pound plummeted to a 37-year-low of US$1.084. Given this favorable exchange rate against the U.S. dollar, American firms are poised to benefit, if they can withstand market volatility and uncertainty—inflation, workforce disruption, energy prices, and countervailing political winds. 

Concurrently, with strained UK water company budgets, a favorable exchange rate, and ongoing shortcomings in the U.K. water industry, there could be more ownership changes among utilities as investors decide to step in or out because of varying risk tolerances. U.S.-based engineering firm Tetra Tech undoubtedly benefitted in its US$691 million acquisition of Abingdon-based RPS Group in October 2022. 

Stakeholder pressures mount amid strides. While justified in some cases, public outrage over private utility ownership and operations in the U.K. has hit a climax, fomented by political upheaval, social media, and economic uncertainty. U.K. water utilities’ pipe leakage rates have barely improved despite mandated targets, and untreated sewage is repeatedly dumped in waterways and beaches. Regulators are responding, holding 11 utilities accountable with £150 million (US$169 million) in fines. However, U.K. water companies are often harshly judged by the public, despite their continued improvement. Ofwat, the chief regulatory authority, reported as recently as July 2022 that three quarters of all companies are meeting their leakage targets, including reductions exceeding 10% over the past two years. This not only represents continued strides towards the 2050 targets, but it also puts the country in line, if not near the top, of its continental peers in Western Europe.

Sustainability is not an end unto itself and requires continued investment and maintenance.

Without question, the U.K., like the rest of the world, faces significant water sector challenges, from drought to aging infrastructure. Unfortunately, sustainability is not an end unto itself and requires continued investment and maintenance. The new increased fine proposal, introduced by the British Environment Secretary, could have major ramifications for the water sector, as it would give regulatory authorities teeth to enforce AMP8 targets. However, in a period of political uncertainty, the U.K. water targets will be contingent on U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ability to deliver on economic and regulatory stability.