Leading Article: Clean water, dirty rivers

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The Independent Online
BRITONS will soon wash in water that is better than Perrier - and increasingly expensive. Meanwhile the Government turns a blind eye to the dead rivers filled with raw sewage and contraceptives that flow through the country's conurbations. Billions of pounds are poured down the drain purifying water unnecessarily, but too little is spent on stemming the stinking tide that overflows into waterways from Victorian sewers.

This is a tale that shows how the British government has abdicated responsibility for wise investment in water and instead tolerated a spiralling bill for improvements that have cost more and delivered less than should have been the case.

The authorities would think it ridiculous to disinfect roads while leaving piles of rubbish rotting on street corners. Yet ministers are pursuing an irrational water policy. As we report today, the Government is allowing the privatised water companies to renege on their promises to clean up British rivers by the turn of the century. Meanwhile, vast sums are being spent on extracting tiny deposits of nitrates from tap water and building coastal sewage-treatment works.

Ministers have got themselves into a mess because they allowed their hands to be tied by European directives on improving drinking water and sewage treatment. The cost has proved far higher than was ever imagined, yet any benefits to health or the environment have yet to be calculated.

Consumers have to pay inflated bills because their representatives were asleep when the directives were negotiated. And ministers are having to scrap Britain's own sensible policy to clean up rivers because the additional cost is politically unacceptable. Such a failure to maintain a rational and efficient policy is extraordinary from a government that has been careful to count every public penny spent on health and education.

Britain is stuck with a water policy that no one really wants, that the consumer can ill afford, that the Government agreed to without appreciating the consequences and that will leave some British rivers filthy for the indefinite future.

Far too late, ministers have realised their mistakes. They are trying to renegotiate directives conceived in a fit of idealism and accepted in the belief that they were pious hopes, not binding requirements. The European Commission is rethinking its requirements for member states to clean up drinking and bathing water. The Government is seeking a delay in implementing the Urban Wastewater Treatment directive, which has biased investment away from keeping British rivers clean of sewage.

But even if these concessions are belatedly won, they only represent government tinkering with European absurdities. There is still no clear sign that ministers have even now developed a policy ensuring a sane and soundly costed balance between clean rivers, good beaches and healthy drinking water.