Why Britain Stinks

Thanks to decades of underinvestment and mismanagement, sewage is flowing into rivers and seas.

A worker examines brickwork in a London sewer.
David Levene / eyevine / Redux

Whenever I was in a bad mood as a child, my parents would toss me into the sea. It was the one thing, they said, that snapped me out of a temper. I grew up a 10-minute walk from the ocean in Wembury, a picture-postcard village in the southwest of England—an area popular for surfing, swimming, and rockpooling.

My father still lives in Wembury, and I still love to get in the water when I’m back home (I now live in London). One day in June 2021, however, I learned from a community Facebook page that going for a swim would not be possible. A blackboard had been erected at the beach with a message scrawled across it in white letters: BEACH CLOSED DUE TO POLLUTION INCIDENT.

In England, such warnings are a common sight: Human waste is routinely dumped into its rivers and seas. Surfers Against Sewage, a campaign group, runs an app that warns users nationwide, via green ticks and red crosses on a map, where it is and isn’t advisable to enter the water. Very commonly, the red crosses are caused by water companies discharging diluted but untreated sewage into the sea.

The practice is designed to be a legal, last-ditch safety measure in the event of a heavy rainstorm, to prevent the sewage from backing up into homes and businesses. This is supposed to be a rare occurrence, but recent data from England’s Environment Agency showed that untreated sewage was dumped more than 300,000 times nationally last year, for a total of more than 1.7 million hours. Hundreds of these releases did not, in fact, follow storms. As bad as the figures for 2022 sound, they are actually an improvement on 2021. The Environment Agency attributed the reduction more to drier weather than to any action on the part of water companies.

The release of untreated sewage into the ocean is not new; indeed, for much of the postwar period, it was a matter of policy in many coastal areas, and not just as a last resort. In more recent times, with tougher rules on sewage treatment, the precise extent of the untreated-discharge problem has not always been easy to track, not least because of inconsistencies in the collection and availability of data. Easier to measure is the momentum that the problem has gained lately as a political issue—one inflection point, according to Politico, being a viral post on a left-wing website in 2021 that drove many angry residents to write to their local lawmakers.

As public awareness has grown, critics have pointed to a cause much wider than bad weather. Decades of failed policies have filled water-company executives’ pockets with cash while England’s waterways and seasides have filled with excrement. If rain is generally to be expected in Britain, so too these days are corporate greed and creaking infrastructure.

It turned out that the sewage dump at Wembury in 2021 was due not to a storm but to a power outage at a local pumping station. The beach quickly reopened, and it remains a very pleasant place to swim in general; the Environment Agency rates its water quality as “excellent.” Still, Wembury has experienced sewage dumping after storms. Last year, according to the most recent Environment Agency data, an overflow into a stream that traverses the main beach discharged five times, and an overflow linked to a village treatment works behind an adjacent beach discharged into the sea 43 times.

Recently, I walked along that beach with Dan Brown, my childhood best friend who is now an elected councilor in Wembury. At its farthest point, we arrived at a thin pipeline perched on concrete stilts running out into the sea: a different wastewater-discharge pipe. As a child, I’d associated the area with a stinky smell. I breathed in deeply but could detect only the brackish odor of banked-up seaweed.

As we walked, Dan told me about the various stresses on water quality in the area: In addition to sewage dumps, these have included agricultural runoff, animal excrement, and faulty plumbing. And since our childhood, the footprint of the village has expanded. In general, more development doesn’t just mean more demand for water and more sewage; it also creates more built-up, paved areas that channel stormwater into the waste system.

Earlier in the day, it had been stormy—Britain just endured its wettest March in decades—but the sky was now clearing, and was shot through with a weak, gray light. A gaggle of surfers bobbed like seals in the ocean. I checked my Surfers Against Sewage app: Wembury was green, yet long stretches of coastline to the east were peppered with red.

In the summer of 1858, London was particularly hot and smelly. With the city’s population booming, and flushing lavatories newly in vogue, the Thames had started to fill with human waste, and cholera ran rampant. The “Great Stink,” as the appalling spell of pollution soon became known, sufficiently disgusted politicians that they threw money at the problem. The result was a hugely ambitious new sewage system, built under the guidance of the celebrated engineer Joseph Bazalgette, whose name became a byword for Victorian ingenuity. Other parts of the United Kingdom followed suit.

For many decades, Bazalgette’s system was “very effective,” Veronica Edmonds-Brown, a senior research fellow in aquatic ecology at the University of Hertfordshire, told me. The problem, she said, is that it hasn’t been meaningfully overhauled since then—and is “no longer fit for purpose.”

Much of the U.K. today has what is known as a combined sewer system: Pipes carrying sewage and surface water connect at various points, with the latter diluting the former. Before being released into the environment, sewage is supposed to be treated at plants. In Wembury, for example, waste flows to the treatment works in a field behind the coastal path and is then discharged, via a pipe, into the sea, about 2,000 feet away from the main bathing area. When heavy rain overwhelms such a combined system, the mingled rainwater and raw sewage flows out of different pipes.

By law, this type of release is supposedly limited to exceptional circumstances. “The point was that the ‘exceptional circumstances’ would be something like a one-in-500- or one-in-100-year flood,” Edmonds-Brown said. “Today, it’s almost a weekly occurrence.” This is largely down to a set of intensifying pressures on the sewage system. The country’s population has expanded hugely since Bazalgette’s day. So, too, has the built environment—not just housing, but also roads and sidewalks—with the result that far more surface water has nowhere to go but into drains. And the climate crisis is making rainstorms more intense.

In the face of these challenges, investment in infrastructure has “not risen to match these demands,” as a report from a House of Lords committee put it recently. “The result is a network unable to cope.”

Unlike any other country in the world, England and Wales have a fully privatized water industry, a state of affairs stemming from the broader neoliberal agenda of Margaret Thatcher’s governments in the 1980s. Critics of this system argue that private suppliers have long neglected to upgrade failing infrastructure, choosing instead to pay out huge shareholder dividends and executive bonuses, and to load up debt. Regulators, meanwhile, have faced budget cuts and accusations of toothlessness, including from their own staff.

“The only way you’re going to resolve this problem is if you put in infrastructure,” Edmonds-Brown told me. “I want to be fair to the water companies in that it’s a big job. But they’ve had a long time to start dealing with it. And they’re tinkering around the edges.”

As with sewage dumping itself, the battle for cleaner bathing water in the U.K. is long-standing. Surfers Against Sewage was founded in the English county of Cornwall (not that far from Wembury) more than 30 years ago as the surfing community’s response to, in the group’s words, “sanitary towels on heads and human poo sandwiched between bodies and boards.” In recent years, however, the fight seems to have escalated. Water companies have faced legal challenges over dumping, one of which recently came before the Supreme Court. The climate activist movement Extinction Rebellion has highlighted the problem: Last month, campaigners dressed in hazmat gear poured fake sewage outside the headquarters of two water companies. All of this has coincided with—and driven—greater media attention to the issue.

A central voice in that coverage—not to mention an energetic and persuasive one—has been that of Feargal Sharkey. For decades, Sharkey was best known as a musician, first as front man for the punk band The Undertones and later in a solo career. For even longer, he’s been a keen fly fisher. Six years ago, he took over as chair of a prestigious angling club in England, which had long been in talks with regulators over the declining water levels on its river in Hertfordshire. “Coming from my music-industry background, where everything happens at a pace,” Sharkey didn’t understand how “you sit around and talk about anything for 15 years and not manage to resolve it,” he told me when we spoke recently.

On his watch, the club moved to sue the Environment Agency, which led to a resolution of the issue. But the process made Sharkey curious about why it had taken so much trouble. He soon noticed that other community groups had similarly hit a wall with their complaints about local water quality. They “put their trust in the system,” Sharkey said. “As it turned out, the system conspired, in some locations, to do exactly the opposite” of what these concerned citizens had been seeking.

Sharkey decided to lend his public profile to the larger cause. To raise awareness, he walked the length of every river in the London area, pointing out, in a series of Twitter threads, “sanitary products, wet wipes, condoms, hanging like some sort of demented bloody Christmas baubles off bits of trees.”

Sharkey’s activism has multiple targets—he has blasted water companies for draining southern England’s pristine chalk streams, which are a global rarity—and his advocacy has highlighted untreated-sewage dumping, which occurs in rivers as well as in coastal areas. (Last year, after one water company claimed that untreated-sewage dumps were 95 to 97 percent rainwater, Sharkey challenged the firm’s CEO to try drinking the runoff.) By the government’s own assessment, only about 15 percent of England’s rivers are in a healthy ecological condition. And, according to the respected magazine New Scientist, just two of them contain stretches that have officially been designated as bathing areas—and in both cases, the water quality is rated as “poor.”

Officials and experts have pointed out that, by Environment Agency metrics at least, coastal bathing areas are much cleaner than they were a few decades ago. And the government has argued that untreated-sewage dumping seems more common now only because of better data collection, which ministers mandated that water companies provide starting in 2016. Last summer, the government set out plans to force water companies to “improve” storm-overflow infrastructure across the board by 2050, bringing the target forward to 2035 for dumps in or near bathing areas. The water industry says that it’s already working on this program. London, channeling something of the spirit of Bazalgette, is building a new “super sewer” at a cost of £4 billion ($5 billion).

But these talking points don’t wash with activists like Sharkey. When we spoke, he responded to the notion that the government had proactively mandated greater transparency as “complete and utter bollocks.” He described the 2050 target as a de facto legalization of practices that violate the law but for legitimately rare circumstances. Surfers Against Sewage wants all untreated sewage dumping cut by 90 percent by 2030, and for the designation of an additional 200 inland bathing waters in the same time frame. The recent House of Lords report concluded that the 2050 plan “lacks bite,” and suggested disbarring from the industry water-company bosses who oversee “egregious environmental crimes.” The Environment Agency has itself called for executives to face jail terms in certain circumstances (though it has since played down its own ability to hand out harsh fines).

Tougher enforcement against those doing the dumping would be a good starting point. Other mooted solutions to the problem include regenerating wetlands and removing concrete paving from the urban environment to relieve pressure on the system from runoff. Some academics think that, in the long run, Britain should scrap its combined system altogether, treating sewage and rainwater separately, although others view that as unnecessary.

More immediately, the country must decide who will pay for the urgently needed infrastructure improvements: taxpayers, private companies, or utility-bill payers. “At a time when there are enough people struggling with the cost of living and having to make decisions about feeding children and keeping the heating on,” the government’s current plan could end up rewarding even more those who have taken value out of water companies, Sharkey said. “It’s a fucking outrage.”

Improbable as it sounds, sewage has become a culturally salient issue—a joke about it even made the new season of Ted Lasso. The red crosses and the social-media images of used toilet paper decorating riparian England have also made it an ever more pressing political concern a year or so out from expected national elections. Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, a small opposition party that has traditionally been the governing Conservative Party’s main challenger in its rural heartland, believe that the sewage issue could swing more than a dozen seats in Parliament their way. The Conservatives seem to be feeling the heat: Despite having set out new targets just last year, the government recently addressed the issue again, this time pledging unlimited fines for water companies and a ban on plastics in wet wipes as part of a broader plan “for delivering clean and plentiful water.” (Critics called these promises a rehash of existing commitments.)

After 13 exhausting years of austerity followed by Brexit chaos followed by COVID misery, the Conservatives are at serious risk of getting kicked out. A widespread sense has taken hold in Britain that nothing is really working as well as it should—and that some things must change. According to recent polls, a strong majority of voters—including Conservatives—think that the public sector, not private companies, should run the water industry. The main opposition Labour Party, which stands to take power if the Conservatives falter, has also attacked the government over its “sewage scandal,” and promised to sort it out. For a time, Labour, too, backed public ownership of water utilities; however, to prove its fiscal discipline, it appeared to renege on the pledge last year.

Whichever government finally addresses the problem will find that fixing it will require serious financial investment and political capital, not half measures. And the challenge goes far beyond sewage treatment. Overflow pipes are by no means the only source of pollution running into rivers and seas. Lost water from leaking pipes is a concern. And it’s also a question of ensuring that Britain has enough water on a long-term basis. As the Lords report noted, the Environment Agency forecasts that, on current trend, the U.K. will be unable to meet domestic water demand in 20 years.

Nowhere is immune to the effects of a warming planet. When I was growing up in Wembury, in the late ’90s, the cult children’s TV show Teletubbies followed three local kids looking for hermit crabs and shrimp in a bay just around the corner from the village. I was one of the kids—yes, there is video. Today, I wonder whether future generations will be able to enjoy the simple seaside pleasures we took for granted, or whether that footage will come to look like a capsule from another world.