Water company shareholders make £6.5 billion in five years

Water company shareholders made £6.5 billion in the five year period between 2013 and 2017, an investigation by Corporate Watch has shown.

Taken from an analysis of company accounts, the figures reveal the huge profits the owners of England’s nine water and sewerage companies are making. Meanwhile, bills remain unaffordable to many, millions of litres of water are leaked every day and the companies don’t do enough to stop sewage spills and other pollution.

Done in collaboration with the GMB union, the research follows last month’s revelations about the huge salaries and bonuses enjoyed by the companies’ CEOs.

The shareholders are a diverse range of investment funds, banks, pension funds and companies.

England’s water & sewerage companies Dividends paid Interest paid out on shareholder loans Interest accrued on shareholder loans Total (£ millions)
Severn Trent Water 1091.6 1,092
United Utilities 1232.6 1,233
Anglian Water 372.0 55.8 428
Northumbrian Water 537.1 461.9 999
South West Water 788.8 789
Southern Water 190.4 432 622
Thames Water 205.5 186.5 392
Wessex Water 533.2 533
Yorkshire Water 18.8 393.4 412
Total 4970 648.4 881.2 6,500

Click here to download the full figures, broken down by individual companies.

A note on shareholder loans and tax havens

The vast majority (close to £5 billion) of the payouts were made as dividends. The rest came as interest on so-called ‘shareholder loans’ – money certain companies have borrowed from their owners. Some companies pay the interest annually, while others rack up (or ‘accrue’) a pot to be paid out in future years.

When we first exposed it in 2013, this financing scheme, run through the Channel Islands, was giving these shareholders a nice return on their investment, while cutting the water companies’ UK tax bills (as interest is taken off the companies’ profit before tax). We have not analysed the impact on the companies’ tax bills as part of this research but for a full explanation of how this worked the last time we did, click here.

There’s been much talk since of the complex offshore structures used by some water companies – even Michael Gove piled in earlier this year.

But the shareholders and bosses of all the companies are enriching themselves at people’s expense, not just those avoiding tax. These new figures show the biggest payouts came from Severn Trent and United Utilities, which ‘publicly’ list their shares on the stock market, have simple corporate structures and no offshore subsidiaries. Tax haven shenanigans may reflect the ruthless financial approaches some ‘private equity’ investors bring but the main problem with the system is plain old profiteering.


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