Millions could be in line for pay-outs as water companies sued for 'underreporting pollution and overcharging customers'

9 August 2023, 08:09 | Updated: 9 August 2023, 08:16

Millions could be in line for a payout from water companies
Millions could be in line for a payout from water companies. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Millions of people could get compensation as six water companies are sued over claims they under-reported pollution spills and overcharged customers.

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Severn Trent Water, Thames Water, United Utilities, Anglian Water, Yorkshire Water and Northumbrian Water could end up paying over £800 million in compensation to more than 20 million people.

The case is being brought by Professor Carolyn Roberts, an environmental and water consultant. She claims that the six water companies have not accurately reported the number of times they discharged sewage, meaning customers were "unfairly overcharged" for wastewater service.

Prof Roberts said that if sewage discharge reporting had been accurate, customers would have paid lower bills.

Water UK, the trade body for water companies, branded the accusations "entirely without merit". A spokesperson said that that 99% of sewage works are legally compliant.

Read more: Water firms say sorry for sewage and unveil biggest modernisation of sewers 'since Victorian era'

Read more: Thames Water fined over £3m for pumping ‘millions of litres’ of sewage into rivers near Gatwick

Water companies have been criticised for discharging sewage
Water companies have been criticised for discharging sewage. Picture: Alamy

Prof Roberts said: "Like many others across the country, I have viewed with horror the escalating number of stories in the media regarding the volume of sewage discharged into our waterways and on to our beaches.

"The population of the UK has a right to expect that our rivers, lakes and seas will generally be clean, except under exceptional circumstances.

"It appears that because of the serial and serious underreporting at the heart of these claims, water companies have been avoiding being penalised by Ofwat.

"I believe this has resulted in consumers being unfairly overcharged for sewage services."

A waste water treatment plant
A waste water treatment plant. Picture: Getty

The first claim is being brought against Severn Trent Water on behalf of eight million people, and is worth a possible £330 million.

The next claims will be brought against the other companies in what Prof Roberts' lawyers Leigh Day said is the first environmental collective action case of its kind.

Anyone who has paid a water bill to one or more of the six companies from April 2020 - or April 2017 for Severn Trent Water customers - may be entitled to compensation if the claims are successful.

Leigh Day is seeking money for customers on an opt-out basis, meaning people only have to come forward to claim their compensation if the case is successful.

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It is bringing Severn Trent Water to the Competition Appeal Tribunal and will issue five further claims against the other water companies over the coming months.

If successful, solicitors expect any compensation to be paid by the relevant water company and its shareholders, not by raising customer bills.

A Water UK spokesperson said: "This highly speculative claim is entirely without merit. The regulator has confirmed that over 99% of sewage works comply with their legal requirements.

"If companies fail to deliver on their commitments, then customer bills are already adjusted accordingly."

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Zoe Mernick-Levene, partner at Leigh Day, said: "These claims are hugely significant. Not only is compensation being sought for millions of customers who have and continue to pay higher water bills, but we hope that it will also send a message to water companies that they cannot unlawfully pollute waterways and mislead their regulators without consequence.

"Customers put their trust in water companies, believing that they are correctly reporting these spillages and appropriately treating the sewage so it can safely be returned to the environment.

"Instead, our client believes they are misleading their regulators and customers are overpaying while England's waterways are suffering as a result."