Water supply and sanitation in the United Kingdom

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United Kingdom: Water and Sanitation
Access to an improved water source 100% (2015)[1]
Access to improved sanitation 99% (2015)[1]
Continuity of supply (%) 100%
Average urban water use (l/c/d) 150
Average urban domestic water and sewer bill for 20m3 n/a
Share of household metering 33% (2008) [2]
Non-revenue water 20% (2010–2011) [3]
Share of collected wastewater treated 100%
Annual investment in WSS n/a
Share of self-financing by utilities n/a
Share of tax-financing n/a
Share of external financing n/a
Decentralization to municipalities No
National water and sanitation company None
Water and sanitation regulator Three regulators, one each for England/Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
Responsibility for policy setting
Sector law None
Number of service providers 28

Public water supply and sanitation in the United Kingdom is characterised by universal access and generally good service quality[citation needed]. A salient feature of the sector in the United Kingdom compared to other developed countries is the diversity of institutional arrangements between the constituting parts of the UK (England and Wales; Scotland; and Northern Ireland), which are each described in separate articles, while this article is devoted to some common issues across the United Kingdom.


Historically, water for drinking, general use, or sewerage was largely left to private arrangements.[4] The recurrence of water poisoning, and large public health crises were a part of people's ordinary existence until scientific advances of the 19th century. After the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854, John Snow first identified the cause of cholera as drinking water being polluted by excrement. Following the Great Stink of 1858, where the River Thames had become so bad smelling that it offended the Queen and forced Parliament to relocate, Joseph Bazalgette began to build the London sewerage system. Starting with the Public Health Act 1848 and its creation of a local board of health in each council, and the Public Health Act 1866, local government built drains, sewers, and began piping clean water to households. The Waterworks Clauses Act 1847 and 1863 provided model constitutions for the dozens of spreading private and local government water companies. The Public Health Act 1875 required all new houses to have running water and internal drainage. By 1944, there were over 1000 water suppliers in England and Wales, though 26 supplied half, and 97 a further quarter of total volume.[5] The Water Act 1945 organised a national water supply policy, before the Water Act 1973 finally organised ten regional water authorities for England and Wales, and additional authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland.[6] However, following other privatisations, the Water Act 1989 changed the ten authorities into ten private water companies, each with a local monopoly, subject to price caps of a new regulator known as Ofwat.[7]

Scottish Water, after a public campaign remained publicly owned, and as a result has maintained significantly lower prices than in England and Wales.[8]


Access to improved water supply and sanitation in the UK is universal. In 2015, 100% of the population had access to improved water supply and 99% of the population had access to "improved" sanitation.[9][1]

Urban (90% of the population) Rural (10% of the population) Total
Water Broad definition 100% 100% 100%
House connections 100% 98% 100%
Sanitation Sewerage 97% 97% 97%

Source: WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (2008) [10]

Water sources[edit]

According to the Environment Agency, total water abstraction for public water supply in the UK was 16,406 megalitres per day in 2007.[11] Groundwater contributes 30 per cent of public supply water in England. In Wales and Scotland groundwater provides about five per cent of public supply.[12] The majority of the UK's abstraction of surface water is from reservoirs, where rainwater is transported via rivers and streams and contained in an artificial or natural lake until it is required. [13]

Water regulation[edit]

Water is a universal human right,[14] and basic to survival.[15] While the UK has the fortune of substantial rainfall, climate damage means water resources are under pressure, and less predictable than before.[16]

Scotland and Northern Ireland[edit]

Loch Faskally is one of many reservoirs used by publicly owned Scottish Water. Its prices are around 10% lower than privatised English and Welsh water companies.[17]

The publicly owned Scottish Water is appointed by Scottish ministers,[18] and overseen by the Water Industry Commission for Scotland,[19] although it has no direct voting power for customers.[20]

In Scotland, it was thought that competition in sewer and water services could pose a public health risk.[21]

In Northern Ireland water and sewerage services are also provided by a single public entity, Northern Ireland Water.


Under EU water law drinking water, bathing waters, and the general environment, like at the River Wandle, must be kept clean and improved.

In England there are 10 private regional water and sewerage companies and 13 mostly smaller private "water only" companies. Each company board is typically accountable to shareholders, mostly asset managers, under the Companies Act 2006. While both UK and EU law is clear that water companies, even if privatised, still are public bodies,[22] these companies pursue shareholder profit, only restricted by regulation.

Ofwat (technically called the Water Services Regulation Authority) has at least three members appointed the Secretary of State,[23] and is meant to "protect the interests of consumers, wherever appropriate by promoting effective competition" and yet ensure companies have a "reasonable returns on their capital",[24] rather than simply act in the public interest.[25] Ofwat licences companies (known as water "undertakers") to operate water and sewer services with "instruments of appointment", and can impose various conditions.[26] Licences usually last 25 years but can be terminated on 10 years notice by government. Because of public outcry over rising prices,[27] the government tried to construct more competition, with the Water Act 2014 requiring suppliers can access or pump water through other providers' pipes, for a reasonable cost, so that consumers might choose their company.[28]

As real competition in natural monopolies always appeared unlikely, Ofwat has always set upper limits to prices, historically for 5-year periods.[29] This has followed the formula of RPI – X + K, where prices should rise no more than the retail price index of inflation, reduced by efficiency savings (X), but allowing for capital investment (K). This means prices could be fixed down or go up. Companies must publicise an annual charging scheme approved by Ofwat,[30] while Ofwat must openly report its work programme, report to the Secretary of State, keep a register of appointments and make information on costs available.[31] Companies can appeal to the Competition and Markets Authority for disputes over access and price caps, while Ofwat can refer companies to the CMA for breaches of conditions.[32] After unacceptable experience of people being disconnected by private companies for non-payment,[33] new regulations introduced exemptions for vulnerable customers, particularly people who are unable to pay, have large families or have medical conditions.[34] Everyone has the right to be connect to a water supply and to sewers, but the cost of new connections is borne by the customer.[35] UK water quality is generally high, since large new investments were made following the EU Drinking Water Quality Directive 1998, requiring water is "wholesome and clean".[36] Ofwat is required to issue enforcement orders under the Water Industry Act 1991 section 18 to uphold drinking quality standards, rather than being content with "undertakings" from water companies.[37]

The Drinking Water Inspectorate has powers of investigation.[38] There are further standards for water companies to keep up water pressure in pipes, respond quickly to letters, phone calls and keep appointments, restore supply and provide water in emergencies, and stop sewer flooding or compensate up to £1000.[39] Finally, the Consumer Council for Water is meant to hear complaints and publicise issues with Ofwat and water companies, but its members are not elected by water customers and it has no legal power to bind Ofwat or the companies.[40]

Environmental harm[edit]

An 1828 cartoon of a woman dropping her teacup when she sees Thames Water magnified.[41] After the Great Stink of 1858, the London sewerage system was built under Joseph Bazalgette.

The law has frequently failed to ensure businesses are fully responsible for water pollution. In principle, a water authority used to be strictly liable for damage it caused.[42] However, more recently water company liability particularly for sewerage leaks has not appeared to as a sufficient deterrent. In R v Anglian Water Services Ltd the Court of Appeal held that fines for pollution should always be set to ensure sufficient deterrence, but on the facts reduced a fine from £200,000 to £60,000.[43] In Marcic v Thames Water plc the House of Lords held that Thames Water plc was not liable in nuisance, or for breach of a homeowner's right to property, as sewerage repeatedly overflowed residents' gardens.[44] According to Lord Hoffmann, the owners had to use statutory mechanisms to secure accountability rather than suing in tort. More recently in Manchester Ship Canal Co Ltd v United Utilities Water Plc the Supreme Court held that United Utilities was responsible for trespass and pollution of canalways, but only before 1991 when statutory reform provided immunity.[45] By contrast, in Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc, the House of Lords held that a tanner business was not liable for polluting the Cambridge Water supply with toxic chemicals, because it said the loss was not "reasonably foreseeable" and therefore too remote.[46] These cases sit uneasily with the principle that polluters should pay, and the scheme of the Water Framework Directive 2000 to ensure proper enforcement of clean water standards.[47]

The Environment Agency is responsible for environmental regulation, and the Drinking Water Inspectorate for regulating drinking water quality. The economic water industry regulator in Scotland is the Water Industry Commission for Scotland and the environmental regulator is the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.


A 2022 study, found that over 70% of the English water industry is in foreign hands (foreign ownership).[48]

By comparison, only around 10 per cent of water companies around the world are privatised,[49] tending to be less efficient and more expensive.[50]


Total employment by UK water companies amounted to 41,000 full-time equivalent jobs in 2012/13, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Deloitte. In addition, 86,000 jobs were supported indirectly.[51]

Financial aspects[edit]


According to a 2006 survey by NUS consulting the average water tariff (price) without sewerage in the U.K. for large consumers was the equivalent of US$1.90 per cubic metre. This was the third-highest tariff among the 14 mostly OECD countries covered by the report.[52]


A particularity of water tariffs in the U.K. is the low share of metering. Most users are not billed on a volumetric basis and have no financial incentive for water conservation. Since the 1990s efforts have been made to increase the share of household metering, which reached 33% in 2008.[2] The Environment Agency would like to see 75% of households metered by 2025. The Fairness on Tap coalition (including National Trust, Waterwise, WWF and RSPB) is calling for the government to set out a strategy to install water meters in at least 80% of England where there is the greatest pressure on the freshwater environment and people's pockets, by 2020. Studies show that water meters lead to a 5–15% reduction in household water use.[53]

UK wide Fibre in Water[edit]

In 2021, the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport launched an open competition called 'Fibre in Water' to explore the potential for delivering broadband and mobile phone services via drinking water mains.[54]

Environmental criticisms[edit]

In July 2011, the think tank Policy Exchange reported a significant decline in river quality due to abstraction carried out by water companies. The report calls for water companies to be charged more for using the most environmentally vulnerable rivers and aquifers in drier parts of the country, with cheaper rates where water is more abundant. It also called for higher water charges during droughts.[55]

In 2009, an investigation conducted by the BBC's Panorama concluded that the operation of more than 20,000 Combined Sewer Overflow pipes (CSO) was leading to the routine spillage of untreated wastes around Britain's coastline, potentially leading to very dirty water around some of the most popular beaches in the UK. The CSOs, intended for use in very rare occasions, were not covered by the existing legislation for waste emissions.[56]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c WHO/UNICEF (2015) Progress on sanitation and drinking water – 2015 update and MDG assessment, Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation
  2. ^ a b Water UK
  3. ^ BBC:How much does your water company leak?, 5 April 2012, retrieved on July 24, 2012
  4. ^ J Getzler, A History of Water Rights at Common Law (2004) 328–352
  5. ^ E Porter, Water Management in England and Wales (1978) 29
  6. ^ e.g. Water (Scotland) Act 1980 (c 45)
  7. ^ Water Act 1989 ss 4, 83–85 were the initial privatisation provisions. See C Harlow and R Rawlings, Law and Administration (3rd edn 2009) ch 7, 293–295.
  8. ^ e.g. 'Water costs cheaper in Scotland' (19 February 2009) BBC
  9. ^ "WASHwatch.org – United Kingdom". washwatch.org. Retrieved 2017-03-22.
  11. ^ Environment Agency
  12. ^ "Groundwater Resources in the UK".
  13. ^ "Water UK".
  14. ^ UDHR 1948 art 25(1) and ICESCR 1966 art 11(1), which is ratified by the UK, both expressly protect the right to food, in which water is implicit. This was acknowledged by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2002) General Comment No 15.
  15. ^ E McGaughey, Principles of Enterprise Law: the Economic Constitution and Human Rights (Cambridge UP 2022) ch 13, 'Food, forests and water'
  16. ^ S Hendry, Frameworks for Water Law Reform (2014) ch 5, 86 and C Harlow and R Rawlings, Law and Administration (3rd edn 2009) ch 7, 292–304
  17. ^ See 'Water costs cheaper in Scotland' (19 February 2009) BBC. D Hall, E Lobina and P Terhorst, 'Re-municipalisation in the early twenty-first century: water in France and energy in Germany' (2013) 27(2) International Review of Applied Economics 193 and J Meek, ‘Not a drop to drink’ in Private Island: Why Britain Belongs to Someone Else (2014) ch 3
  18. ^ Water Industry (Scotland) Act 2002, constitutes Scottish Water. Sch 3 requires an 8–13 member board appointed by the Scottish Ministers as experts. The Water (Scotland) Act 1980, contains duties and functions. The Sewerage (Scotland) Act 1968 deals with sewage.
  19. ^ Water Industry (Scotland) Act 2002 s 1
  20. ^ There is, however, a "Customer Forum" without any binding rights, but which may have some useful input: see S Hendry, Frameworks for Water Law Reform (2014) ch 5, 95, fn 282
  21. ^ S Hendry, Frameworks for Water Law Reform (2014) ch 5, 81
  22. ^ See Griffin v South West Water Services [1995] IRLR 15 and Fish Legal v Information Commissioner, United Utilities, Yorkshire Water and Southern Water (2014) C-279/12
  23. ^ Water Industry Act 1991 s 1A and Sch 1A, para 1. This was amended by the Water Act 2003
  24. ^ Water Industry Act 1991 s 2
  25. ^ cf Water Industry (Scotland) Act 2002 s 1, requiring "promoting the interests of customers".
  26. ^ WIA 1991 s 11. The Water Act 2003 s 52 gives Ofwat a duty to cooperate with the Secretary of State, the National Assembly for Wales, the Environment Agency, and the Natural Resources Body for Wales.
  27. ^ e.g. R Graham, 'Water in the UK – public versus private' (19 December 2014) openDemocracy
  28. ^ WIA 1991 ss 66A-L. Slightly different, WIA 1991 ss 105A-C enables transfer of lateral drains and private sewers to water companies where they were draining to a public mains sewer and treatment works, to avoid deterioration. Water Industry (Schemes for Adoption of Private Sewers) Regulations SI 2011/1566.
  29. ^ WIA 1991 ss 11–12, price determinations and conditions set in Instruments of Appointment, Condition B, each 5 years.
  30. ^ WIA 1991 ss 142–150
  31. ^ WIA 1991 ss 192A-B, 201–202
  32. ^ Ofwat and the CMA also have jurisdiction for mergers for companies with a size over £10m p/a: WIA 1991 ss 31–35.
  33. ^ See R (Oldham MBC) v Director General of Water Services (1998) 31 HLR 224 finding automatic disconnection from water through a prepayment meter did not comply with the law. R (Lancashire CC) v Director of Water Services [1999] EnvLR 114, stopped disconnections or limiting devices. The Water Industry Act 1999 stopped arbitrary disconnections.
  34. ^ ater Industry (Charges) (Vulnerable Groups) Regulations SI 1999/3441 and Floods and Water Act 2010 s 44. This does not mean that company profits' are reduced by vulnerable customers, as companies can raise prices for other customers to ensure their profits are not reduced.
  35. ^ WIA 1991 ss 37, 45 (water) and 94–99 (sewers).
  36. ^ Drinking Water Quality Directive 98/83/EC art 4, meaning water is free from any micro-organisms and parasites dangerous to health, and complies with chemical and biological standards listed in Annex I. This is implemented by the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 1989 SI 1989/1147. In McColl v Strathclyde RC 1983 SC 225 water fluoridation was successfully challenged.
  37. ^ Commission v United Kingdom (1992) C-337/89, on the failure to transpose the Directive. The UK system under WIA 1991 s 19 of accepting undertakings from water companies (instead of s 18 enforcement orders) was not an adequate legal framework to comply with EU law. Contrast Commission v Spain (2003) C-278/01, ECLI:EU:C:2003:635 on bathing water quality, where the CJEU confirmed fines of a €624,150 per year and per 1% of bathing areas in Spanish inshore waters which were found not to conform to the Bathing Waters Directive 2006/7/EC.
  38. ^ WIA 1991 s 86
  39. ^ Water Supply and Sewerage Services (Customer Service Standards) Regulations 2008 (SI 2008/594) regs 6–12
  40. ^ cf WIA 1991 ss 27A-27K
  41. ^ By William Heath at the time of the Commission on the London Water Supply report, 1828
  42. ^ Department of Transport v North West Water Authority [1984] AC 336
  43. ^ [2003] EWCA Crim 2243
  44. ^ [2003] UKHL 66
  45. ^ [2014] UKSC 40
  46. ^ [1994] 2 AC 264
  47. ^ Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC recital 53, and see E Fisher, B Lange and E Scotford, Environmental Law Text, Cases, and Materials (2013) ch 14
  48. ^ "Revealed: more than 70% of English water industry is in foreign ownership". the Guardian. 2022-11-30. Retrieved 2022-12-06.
  49. ^ S Hendry, Frameworks for Water Law Reform (2014) ch 5, 78, quoting P Marin, Public private partnerships for urban water utilities: A review of experiences in developing countries (2009) finding 7% of companies were privatised, and suggesting even if this is too low, 15% would be a "generous estimate".
  50. ^ D Hall, E Lobina and P Terhorst, 'Re-municipalisation in the early twenty-first century: water in France and energy in Germany' (2013) 27(2) International Review of Applied Economics 193 and J Meek, ‘Not a drop to drink’ in Private Island: Why Britain Belongs to Someone Else (2014) ch 3
  51. ^ "Tapping into growth: economic impact report". Water UK. June 2014. Retrieved 1 September 2014.
  52. ^ NUS Consulting
  53. ^ Environment Agency
  54. ^ "Fibre in Water: Improving access to advanced broadband and mobile services via drinking water mains". DCMS. Retrieved 16 August 2021.
  55. ^ Britain's rivers 'being ruined by demands of water companies', The Independent, 3 July 2011
  56. ^ BBC News: Britain's Dirty Beaches, 7 September 2009


  • E McGaughey, Principles of Enterprise Law: the Economic Constitution and Human Rights (Cambridge UP 2022) ch 13

External links[edit]