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Feargal Sharkey

The prioritising of private profit is a direct cause of our catastrophic water pollution, says environmental activist Feargal Sharkey
GTCRFOTO / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Talking to Feargal Sharkey is the conversational equivalent of falling into the Corryvreckan Whirlpool. You cannot help but be sucked in by his outrage at UK water companies’ monstrous dereliction of duty, leading to widespread pollution and destruction of our water’s vital eco-systems. He talks with such precision and passion it makes your blood beat to a faster tempo. In fact, it’s fair to say the former singer and frontman of 1970s punk band The Undertones has become the UK’s most effective environmental campaigner. While other high-profile activists such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion divide the populace, Sharkey appears to enjoy near-universal backing. As he made his way to this interview, through Soho’s narrow streets, he was stopped three times by people expressing support. “The last time I really felt that level of engagement with the general public,” he says, “my record was number one in this country.” (1985’s A Good Heart.)

The citizens of this seafaring, wild-swimming, fly-fishing nation clearly agree with Sharkey that the current state of affairs is (quite literally) a shit show, and one that must be addressed as a matter of political urgency. According to a national poll in early September, 56 per cent of UK adults said their voting intentions would be heavily influenced by the government’s handling of sewage spills into our rivers and seas. A subsequent poll for the Lib Dems revealed four out of ten Conservative voters would vote for another party if their local MP was prepared to oppose a ban on releasing sewage into our waters. And back in August a YouGov poll for the FT revealed a whopping 69 per cent of people would support renationalisation to counter the pollution of our waterways.

None of this is surprising when you register that UK water companies collectively released effluent and other toxic compounds for 1.75m hours last year. Or that only 14 per cent of our waterways meet a “good ecological standard”. Or that water companies have paid out £72bn in dividends to shareholders since taking up the reins in 1989, but have not modernised our antiquated sewerage system nor invested in sufficient numbers of new reservoirs – let alone piping to carry the water. As Sharkey says, “The government screwed us.” He points out that even when ministers try to front it out by claiming 94 per cent of our bathing water is in excellent condition, that result has been wilfully skewed by sporadic testing. Which means the water will be deemed good for swimmers even if there’s a big sewage leak the day after testing. You can even disregard the worst 15 per cent of your results “and write them off as an outlying anomaly in the data.” And if the site still fails to be classified as clean, “we just de-designate it as bathing water”, which means it no longer has to be tested. This, according to Sharkey, is what has happened at Clacton-on-Sea, where families splashing about by the pier, as they have done for generations, are officially no longer in an area “designated for swimming and recreation”.

The three of us sit down in a Hogarthian room in Lexington Street that’s as close as London gets nowadays to the coffee houses where dissent was fomented in the eighteenth century. The 65-year-old star seems as spry as ever, with an impressive mane of dark hair and that familiar chiselled jaw. We leap in by asking what he thinks of Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) reneging on “nutrient neutrality”. We’re referring to rules that were only put into place in 2017, meaning land couldn’t be developed for housing if extra phosphates and nitrates might enter nearby waterways via wastewater, or run-off from building sites. With a hollow laugh he explains that his “finely tuned, music-industry bullshit detector” activated an early instinct that the current administration weren’t being “completely truthful and transparent about their ambitions for the environment”.

By way of illustration, Sharkey directs our attention to a directive called the “Water Framework Regulations”, which was introduced in 2003 as part of measures to ensure adequate water quality across the EU. He says that if you boiled the directive down it was intended to ensure that, by 2027, “every single water body in England will be in good ecological condition.” That “every”, he notes, includes: “every pond, every stream, every lake, every brook, every river and even that the groundwater aquifer that supplies our water taps would be in good ecological condition.” However, by the time Theresa May published the government’s 25-year plan for the environment in January 2018, the “every” had been whittled down to “75 per cent”. Correspondingly, “good ecological condition” was changed to “natural condition”, a far vaguer wording that incenses Sharkey. “Whatever the hell that means, there’s no definition anywhere that I can find.”

Most frustrating for Sharkey is that net neutrality measures were specifically designed to protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest – areas deemed so worthy of conservation they’d been afforded “the highest level of legal protection we have”. He talks lyrically about Brent’s Welsh Harp reservoir as a key urban example, providing essential habitats for nesting and migrating birds. Gove’s and the government’s rhetoric would have voters believe that England and Wales are overrun with red tape, preventing new homes from being built. In Sharkey’s view it’s a ploy designed to “pander to the desires of Tory Party donors”, who are often builders and developers. (According to one statistic, 20 per cent of Conservative donations over ten years up to March 2020, amounting to £60m, came from property tycoons.) Sharkey notes that on the day Michael Gove stepped back on the nutrient neutrality requirements, the share values of the three largest housebuilders in the country soared by £494m in eight hours: “I know because I tracked it that day.”

The good news is that Sharkey is equally purposeful about the most effective ways to address the problem. You may be surprised to learn he’s not an advocate of renationalisation, despite understanding the average citizen’s urge to “inflict a bit of pain” on the water companies: “One, philosophically, you let them off the hook… If you nationalise [the water companies], you also end up knowing – absolutely without a shadow of a doubt, 100 per cent certainty – that the taxpayer is going to have to pick up the can and carry the cost for their greed and corporate corruption.”

He outlines the scale of corporate dereliction, even farther-reaching in its implications than the sewage scandal: “the same lack of investment, the same strategic oversight went into London and the Southeast’s water supply. So, as it transpires, London is now number nine on the list of global capital cities most likely to run out of drinking water… with the likes of Cape Town, Jakarta, São Paolo and Mexico City. How the fuck did that ever happen? According to the chairman of the national infrastructure committee, that alone is going to cost £20bn to fix.” It outrages Sharkey to think the public could be asked to pay for that on top of other errors in a nationalised system when the power to effect change is “actually there already and exists in the legislation. The government has the power to issue what’s called an enforcement order.” He says firmly that the current Secretary of State for the Environment Theresa Coffey could, at the stroke of a pen, “legally instruct the water companies and the boards, and directors of those companies, exactly what they’re going to pay their chief executive, exactly what they’re going to pay their shareholders, exactly what they’re going to invest in their infrastructure, exactly what they’re going to do to pay down this £60bn worth of debt that they’re all in.”

But there’s an upside after the pain, he points out. “It may take five, ten, fifteen years, but ultimately you end up with a company that is profitable, forward-looking, with a nice new shiny infrastructure for sewerage and water supply, debt-free. And the company and the bill-payers, the Conservative taxpayer, start to get some value from all the money we’ve already given you.” However, judging from the current flagging administration’s dire record on regulation, we all agree this isn’t a solution that will be sprung into action any time soon. So what about the people who will be sitting around the Cabinet table following the next election – widely presumed, given current polling, to be a Labour administration (or coalition)? “The one thing we can say for certain is the next government of this country is going into the water industry, whether it likes the idea or not,” Sharkey says starkly. Because you cannot have 25m people living in London and the southeast of England, in a G7 member state, running out of bloody drinking water.” To put this in its full depressing context, the National Audit Commission has predicted demand for water in England will exceed supply by as much as three billion litres a day by 2050, because of a swelling population and climate change. And, as Sharkey reminds us, “that’s before you even move on to sewage and the plight of every river in the country.”

The day Gove stepped back on nutrient neutrality, house builders’ share values soared by £494m

Knowing that one of Perspective’s editors lives in Cambridge, he adds wryly: “You ran out of water ages ago… Cambridge Water and Affinity Water have absolutely no storage space whatsoever. They’re utterly dependent upon drilling bore holes into the chalk aquifer and sucking out every bit of water they possibly can get away with.” And things are set to get far worse, as Gove’s levelling-up drive demands 50,000 new homes in and around Cambridge by 2050. Sharkey says people ask him, “Where’s the water going to come from?” and his answer is, “it is utterly screwed. There is now more rain in South Sudan than there is in the whole of East Anglia.” The singer’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the depressing state of affairs across the nation’s waterways is one of the factors that makes him so impressive as a campaigner. He’s made it his business to get involved with as many local action groups as possible, whether that be Friends of the Cam, Surfers Against Sewage, or SOS Whitstable. He’s well aware that, together, these bodies can prove a mighty force and exert leverage on both politicians and corporations.

Sharkey’s own campaigning started on exactly this local level when he joined Amwell Magna Fishery, near Ware in Hertfordshire – the oldest angling club in England that’s continuously fished the same stretch of water. Appalled by the depleted condition of the River Lea – one of England’s distinctive chalk streams – the singer helped spearhead the club’s campaign to make Thames Water accountable for pumping out excessive amounts of water, and pollution. The Fishery prepared a legal case to take the Environment Agency to the High Court and it was only at that point the EA became muscular with Thames Water, making sure the company fulfilled its own legal obligation to maintain the river.

This story perfectly illustrates the major problem with English water conservation – our watchdogs seem to be asleep on duty. The Environmental Agency is a government body that was founded to safeguard our waterways, wildlife, coastline and green spaces. But, since it’s part of DEFRA, it’s often impeded by the government and bureaucratic inefficiency. It’s only in recent years that it’s started imposing the kinds of fines that make water companies think twice about bad practice. In 2021 it imposed a record £90m fine on Southern Water for thousands of illegal sewage discharges. Which is a start, but still paltry compared to shareholders’ dividends.

And then there’s OFWAT, aka the The Water Services Regulation Authority, which oversees the economic regulation of our privatised water and sewerage industry, sets consumer prices and agrees the amounts that should be spent on maintaining infrastructure. It can also extract sizeable fines on behalf of ill-served customers but only swung into forceful action late in the day. As this magazine was preparing to go to press, OFWAT announced that England and Wales’ water companies were going to have to collectively pay back £114m to customers (through lower bills next year) because they’d missed their performance targets. To no one’s surprise, the worst offender was Thames Water, which has to repay a whopping £101m.

You could be forgiven for feeling you’re living in Groundhog Day, so regular are the depressing headlines detailing leaks, shortages and all-round abysmal performance. Does Sharkey think Labour will make a better fist of things if they win the next election? His answer is succinct: “The next government, whether it likes the idea or not, is getting involved in the water industry. It’s that simple.” In his view, they will have to identify and build more reservoirs and then think about “how the hell are you going to fill those things? Because you can’t just turn on a tap and pipe water in from north Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland. There is no national network… And again, you go back to lack of political oversight and regulators not doing their bloody job.”

The reason for this monumental ineffectiveness? According to Sharkey, it comes down to the people sitting on the boards, whether that be OFWAT or the water companies. He shakes his head grimly: “[these people] should never have been appointed.” His vehemence comes from decades in the music business, working with people at the top of their game: “The British music industry is a colossal global success story for this country,” he says. By contrast, the people he’s encountered as a clean water campaigner “would not survive an afternoon in the music industry. That level of complete incompetence would never ever be tolerated.”

In further bad tidings, the terms of their operating licences mean that water companies are entitled to 25 years’ notice before they can lose their franchise. Sharkey explains that this, in turn, makes the companies attractive to venture capitalists who can use the value of the company to raise debt. Then, rather than using that money to invest in infrastructure, they think: “we could actually use that money to pay ourselves through 25 years of profit.” This manoeuvre has the added benefit for a shareholder who gets involved in the financing itself (“money which is now paid back to you, as a massive dividend”) on which they might charge interest of “between 16 and 20 per cent”. Which is sort of thing that happened at companies like Thames Water during a period when interest rates were at a historic low.

Sharkey’s outrage at this wanton example of hedge-fund venality is palpable. “Let’s say, hypothetically, for example… you won Thames Water, you could spend the whole of the noughties – by way of example – charging between 16 to 20 per cent a year interest in a period of history when the interbank lending rate was a quarter of one per cent. Oh, and by the way, in this country, interest payments on that, because they’re intercompany, they’re tax-free. So you just find a way to offshore a lot of money every year, completely tax-free. Now, here’s the thing, at what point did the regulator go, ‘Hang on a minute, you can’t be doing that’? And that, in my view, is what triggered the whole crisis with Thames Water two months ago, where the company was looking financially dodgy, the rating agency were about to downgrade their credit rating. The shareholders a year ago, two years ago, had promised to put in another £1.5bn into the company. They reneged on a billion pound of it. That’s my opinion on why the previous chief executive had to go, while the company is sitting there teetering, because the shareholders are now signalling, they’re not prepared to put any more money into this company, it’s a basket case. And the reality is that then triggers a whole other investigation where it now looks like there’s probably five, if not six, water companies all in a similar position. Teetering on the edge of insolvency.”

Fines for sewage discharge are paltry compared to shareholders’ dividends

He blames a fair bit of the mess on the 1990s’ favourite weasel term, “light touch regulation”, a phenomenon he observed close up when involved with regulating the commercial radio industry. “The idea was both very simple and profound. Here’s how light touch regulation actually works, here are the rules: as an industry in the modern world, we’ve consulted, we’ve discussed, we’ve debated, we’ve cogitated and we’ve published the rules. Here are the rules! So, from this point on, it’s easy. Stick to the rules and you do not ever, EVER have to speak to your regulator ever again. Break the rules, you will discover the regulator has got a really big stick. For some weird reason, everybody seems to have forgotten the latter bit of that sentence.”

Sharkey reminds you of a terrier with a rat: there’s no way he’s letting the water companies or the government free from his jaws. But then campaigning runs through the singer’s blood and bones. His father Jim was a leading trade unionist and chairman of the Old Derry Labour Party and his mother Sibeal was a formidable force in Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, also dedicated to preserving Irish culture. Seamus Heaney was just one of the many fascinating people Sharkey and his six siblings (he’s the second youngest) regularly encountered round his parents’ table. His father was heavily involved in the “Bogside rebellion”, a three-day riot in Derry in 1969, setting up a mobile pirate radio station that was chased around by police and eventually transmitted from over the border in Donegal. But it was Sibeal who was “the real powerhouse of the whole thing”, Sharkey says. He vividly describes how in 1968, aged ten, he was bundled into a car with the rest of the family and “found myself walking down the middle of the main road between Belfast and Dublin, taking part in the People’s Democracy Civil Rights March, demonstrating over injustices in Northern Ireland… Waving what I later discovered was an anarchist flag. And welcome to my mother!”

You wonder what Sibeal – who died long before her spouse – would have made of her son being awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to music. But then Sharkey is one of those rare beasts who can tread a tightrope between the establishment and the rebels without seeming to jettison integrity. And that’s surely because of his Derry grounding: “I grew up in a world where sitting in my kitchen I watched the housewife, the school teacher, the electrician, the plumber, debating how they were going to bring down the national government in Northern Ireland.” And then he watched them succeed. “So, in my mind, anything is possible.”

The tide is turning his way, as all the polls show: a clear majority of adults have said their voting intentions will be heavily influenced by how a political party approaches the water issue. Sharkey’s pressing question now is how we turn 56 per cent support into 96 per cent. Both Starmer and Sunak would be well advised to heed his final comment: “I don’t care what political parties they are, or who wins the government. You will know the mood of the nation and you will understand the consequences for not delivering what those people want.”

Rowan Pelling and Peter Phelps are co-editors at Perspective

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October 2023, People

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