Chris Evans

3rd April 2024


The Water Industry: A Cautionary Tale of Deregulation, Debt and Privatisation

Your options for the Water & Wastewater Services Providers Industry:

Buy the Plimsoll Analysis Book a Free Demo

The Water Industry: A Cautionary Tale of Deregulation, Debt and Privatisation

The Precarious Balance Post-Privatisation

The story of Thames Water, the UK's largest water utility, encapsulates the challenges faced by privatised British utilities. After its privatisation in the late 80s, Thames Water and every other water provider found themselves in a competition free, private market.

Over the ensuing decades, many companies, with a monopoly in their regional market, embarked on a debt-laden journey, seeming to focus on  shareholder value and dividends over infrastructure investments and operational efficiencies. This financial strategy, while beneficial to short-term shareholders and the decision makers charged with delivering them, has placed many of Britain’s water companies in a precarious financial position.

The Debt Dilemma & Thames Water

The potential collapse of Thames Water, the largest of Britain’s water companies serving London and the affluent South East, has brought long overdue scrutiny to whether privatisation of utilities, where there is no competition, could work effectively. The heart of Thames Water's dilemma lies in its massive debt burden. This debt appears, on the face of it, to finance dividends to shareholders, rather than for the sustainable growth of the company or for much-needed upgrades to its aging infrastructure.

This may ultimately compromise the company's ability to provide reliable services but also its financial stability, leaving it vulnerable to external pressures and regulatory scrutiny.

The same shareholders that have enjoyed a seemingly unbroken run of dividend payments, are now unwilling  to inject the capital needed to sustain and rebalance the business. The result leaves the taxpayer and customers facing a huge bill in the latest “Privatised Profit / Socialised Losses” debate from the industries privatised in the 1980s.

Plimsoll's Warning: A Sector at Risk

One of the UK’s leading market analysts have warned that worse could be yet to come.

The latest Plimsoll Analysis on the UK Water Treatment Services industry highlights a sector under strain, with a growing number of providers identified as being serial loss-makers, leaving 1 in 3 companies rated as Danger in the latest year. This study warns of a broader trend within the industry, where companies are teetering close to financial instability. The analysis points out that, similar to Thames Water, many companies within the sector look to have prioritised the wrong objectives and now find themselves in a precarious financial state.

According to the latest Plimsoll Analysis, 1 in 3 of Britain’s leading water and treatment companies are in financial peril. From the large publicly traded water companies to those further down the value chain that feeds into and from it, the industry is struggling under a mountain of debt and a crumbling infrastructure..

Plimsoll takes 5 years of financial data and produces a concise, graphical assessment on each water industry. Such is the predictive power of the Plimsoll Model, 9 out of 10 companies currently in administration were given a Danger rating two full years prior to their demise. The fact that 1 in 3 water and treatment companies have been given such a rating in 2024 is food for thought for those debating taking water provision back into public ownership.

Towards Sustainable Practices

The challenges faced by Thames Water and other utilities underscore the need for a shift towards more sustainable financial and operational practices. Investing in infrastructure, adopting innovative water treatment solutions, and prioritising long-term stability over short-term gains are critical steps in ensuring the resilience and reliability of the country’s water utilities. For regulators and governments, the question is how best to achieve such a future.

An industry whereby billions of pounds of debt have been loaded onto what were debt free businesses on their launch in 1989 would be more understandable had that been serious investment in infrastructure

Plimsoll has built a concise analysis that regulatory, parliamentarian, water company and investors should pore over to understand the true state of affairs in the market.


The serious issues faced by Thames Water  serve as a cautionary tale for utilities and regulators alike. Their situation highlights the perils of excessive debt and the prioritisation of dividends over operational necessities. As the Plimsoll Analysis suggests, Thames Water is not alone in its financial precariousness. To safeguard the future of water utilities, a re-evaluation of financial strategies and a commitment to sustainable practices are imperative.

For more information about the Plimsoll Analysis, please click here

Water & Wastewater Services Providers Subscription Benefits
  • Access to every company within this industry
  • Unique overview of market trends with the latest information available
  • Stay alerted to changes happening in real time
  • Free PDF analyses included
Please select a date and time for a demonstration.