David Adamson spoke with groups including XR, who condemn company’s polluting of rivers while pocketing dividends
Every period of protest needs a good soundtrack.
Think of the running battles of the late 60s and something like Gimme Shelter will spring to mind. Any mention of ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ and Ghost Town will begin to whirr in your ears.
On Friday morning (21 July) I approached the entrance to the United Utilities (UU) headquarters near Warrington, where a small crowd of protesters from Liverpool, Manchester and across the North West, were gathered and Bridge over Troubled Water was playing from a loudspeaker.
Our waters and the environment are here to sustain us - we are part of it. It's not to be exploited, it's to be enjoyed
While the scene in Lingley Mere certainly wasn’t as cinematic as those in the past, the protesters’ choice of song was apt.
To say United Utilities is troubled would be an understatement on par with ‘food’s getting a bit pricey at the minute’. As for the water? Well…
Data published by the Environment Agency in March showed that UU discharged untreated sewage nearly 70,000 times last year for a total of over 425,491 hours.
That means that every year, the equivalent of 48 years’ worth of sewage is being discharged by the custodian of the North West’s vital water supply.
If that figure doesn’t make you feel queasy, then consider that the company reported operating profits of £610 million in 2022 and paid out dividends of £296 million.
The annual general meeting took place that Friday morning, where directors and shareholders were due to vote on whether to declare an annual dividend of just over 30p per share, to be paid on 1 August.
Numbers aside, I spoke to protesters about the other costs of UU management of the rivers of the North West.
Holding up a placard reading ‘Clean up your mess and pay for it’, Renate Aspden, 60, spoke to what she saw as a dereliction of duty by UU not just to its customers, but to the environment.
“I'm here today as a dissatisfied customer of United Utilities,” she said. “On my bill it clearly states that I'm being charged for having my wastewaters removed and cleaned prior to being released back into the environment. Well, this clearly isn't happening. United Utilities is breaching their contract with each and every one of their customers.
“It should be a publicly-run service: the public is the major stakeholder in the environment. They have no empathy, they're so detached from the environment. I don't know where they go to swim or go for a walk.
“It's as if the environment doesn't count. They use it to extract and extract and they don't see that one day it’s all going to be trashed and unusable. Our waters and the environment are here to sustain us - we are part of it. It's not to be exploited, it's to be enjoyed.”
Another protester, Susan, explained that their presence outside the headquarters that day was to remind shareholders of what they would be voting for.
“UU are clearly afraid of their members knowing just how the public feels about this and how absolutely disgusted we are with the state of this country's waterways,” she said. “It's causing illness, it's killing off wildlife. It's a major ecological crisis, and I think that needs to be brought home in no uncertain terms to everybody who has the right to vote at the AGM.
“I think they should be taking action to clean up United Utilities and get them doing the job they're paid to do, that every one of us is paying our water rates for them to do. Yet what they're doing is throwing shit literally into our waterways. I can't tell you how angry I am about it.
“I live in Bury, and I’ve got brown water coming out of my taps. There’s regularly filth in the water being delivered to my home. But that's a small problem because the much bigger problem is nationwide - we are all watching our wildlife die because these people don't do the job that they are paid to do.”
Teacher and XR member, Hannah Stanton, then took up the microphone and addressed her fellow protesters. While plenty of ire was reserved for UU executives, she expressed her solidarity with beleaguered UU workers.
“If you look on the list of the top 10 worst polluted beaches in England, United Utilities is responsible for polluting seven of them, so they are horrifically responsible for polluting our coastlines,” she said. “Take the River Irwell; in 2022 there were 54 sites along that river that were polluted by United Utilities for a total of nearly 13,000 hours - equivalent to one and a half years on an average of 6.5 times a day, and that’s just one river.
“Meanwhile United Utilities workers recently voted to go on strike because their pay has been so squeezed and because they are demanding action on the decades of underinvestment in infrastructure.
“So we're standing here partly in solidarity with the United Utilities workers, who also want clean water and want fair pay and they don't see why those at the top should be trousering an absolute fortune out of their labour and out of destroying our natural environment.”
Putting it in slightly different but no less local terms was chartered accountant Chris Jeffries, 66, who likened UU emergence following the privatisation of water companies in 1989 to the Glazer buyout of Manchester United fifteen years later.
“If you look at their accounts, the ones that they're are about to approve, they have about £12 billion worth of debt,” he explained. “But they didn’t have that £12 billion worth of debt at the beginning. So the private equity companies who bought most of United Utilities bought it borrowing the money, and then they've loaded that debt to United Utilities.
“So if you know anything about Manchester United and the way the Glazers worked, it's exactly the same. They borrowed the money to pay for it, then they gave those loans to the company, the company then has to deal with those loans. It’s a leveraged buyout, and it's completely immoral.”
I ventured inside the castle walls of United Utilities headquarters, and while I had a conversation (sadly off the record) with a spokesperson, the shields were locked for battle.
A spokesperson for United Utilities said: “The views of all our customers and shareholders are important to us and we fully respect the rights of those who wish to protest.
“We know that people want to see action to improve river health and today we have outlined our plans for the biggest environmental improvement programme we have ever delivered.
“We are starting early on £1.5 billion of investment over the next two years, building on the 40% reduction of storm overflow operation we’ve already achieved since 2020.”
The third item on the AGM voting agenda was for or against whether to declare a final dividend of 30.34 pence per ordinary share, where nearly 99% voted in favour. Unsurprisingly.
Whether we will see an improvement in the health of our waterways remains to be seen, but for now the torrent of public outrage seems to show no signs of abating.
When Simon and Garfunkel released Bridge Over Troubled Water as a single in 1970 it naturally needed a B-side.
They went with Keep the Customer Satisfied.
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