Self-styled water standards champion or irrepressible maverick, Derbyshire-born Alan Smith, a water industry veteran with more than 60 year’s experience, pulls no punches when it comes to naming those he thinks are responsible for the country’s water pollution woes.

At a recent public meeting, both the industry’s regulators, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, as well as Totnes and South Devon MP, Anthony Mangnall, came in for a roasting.

“Mangnall is part of the problem. He wants to put a sticking plaster on a model that is dead in the water - pardon the pun. You need long-term thinking, but we’ve had short-term political and regulatory thinking, and that’s been damning for the industry,” he says.

Born in Derbyshire to a working class family, Smith started out in the industry in the early 1960s, working his way up the ladder and eventually overseeing Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of water in 1989.

Now based in the South Hams, Smith is still active in his late 70s, and is currently giving talks around the county, promoting his memoirs, teasingly titled ‘Is that the water board?’, and explaining why water privatisation is a “broken model”.

There’s no denying the industry is in crisis, partly due to scandals that flow will all the muckiness of untreated sewage. In its latest expose, the Guardian newspaper revealed that water companies have been deliberately diverting raw sewage away from the works and into the waterways in far bigger quantities than previously thought, while failing to report it to the environmental regulator.

Whistleblowers have also discovered that diversion pipes had been installed so that part of the flow is “deliberately diverted” to an environmentally sensitive stream, rather than into the works, in order to pass sanitary parameters.

Called ‘flow trimming’, it’s yet more lexicon to add to the cornucopia of sewage-related jargon, although Smith prefers to explain it in more simple terms.

“One of the reasons why we’re not getting the most effective policing and monitoring of the sewage treatment works is because the Environment Agency (EA) has been butchered.

“If I was in charge I’d probably triple or quadruple the EA’s funding because they don’t have the resources, and the water companies are walking all over them.”

Smith has witnessed the ups and downs of the water industry over the years. Early on in his career, he discovered how dilapidated the sector was.

Alan Smith at home (Tindle / Richard Torne)

“Councillors used to say there’s no votes in s**t. There were departments rarely talking to each other and from an environmental point of view, it was a disaster.”

He witnessed first hand the sector’s first seismic change with the 1973 Water Act, which reorganised sewage, water and river management, removing it from local authority control, which was made up of 1,600 bodies, and creating instead 10 regional and publicly-owned water authorities.

“The changes were fantastic, but we were still under treasury control. We got the ‘engine’, but no fuel to drive it with. Between 1974, when we got re-organised, and the early 1980s the funding from the treasury went down.”

In 1989, the privatisation of the industry under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was transformative, paving the way for the current problems, although Smith believes it worked for a time. “For the first five years, we got the funding and we were out of the clutches of the Treasury.”

He cites the subsequent windfall tax during Tony Blair’s government and Labour’s demand to reduce water bills by 12.5 per cent as a turning point.

“It had a detrimental effect. It slowed down the improvements in the capital programme and the water companies had less money to invest.”

The squeeze on operating costs and the inevitable need to keep shareholders happy did the rest.

It may not be a popular view, but he believes the public is paying too little for the privilege of having a water and sewage system.

Surprisingly, his answer is not necessarily to re-nationalise the industry but to create not-for-profit companies, run at a local level.

“The boardrooms have lost touch with the local community. You need to find a structure that will retain the efficiencies that we’ve made in a lot of areas, and a not-for-profit allows you to put the surplus back into capital investment, and not repay the carpetbaggers.”

Either way, the industry needs to get serious. He reckons the size of the investment needed to separate brown and rain water, and rid the country of the combined sewers overflow (CSO) system could take between £500 billion and £900 billion.

“In priority areas, it could be done by 2050.”