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Government Roasted Over Lacklustre Plan To 'Hold Water Companies To Account' After Sewage Leaks

Aerial view of discoloured liquid being discharged into the River Thames near Thames Water's Longreach Sewage Treatment Works on August 10, 2023.
Aerial view of discoloured liquid being discharged into the River Thames near Thames Water's Longreach Sewage Treatment Works on August 10, 2023.

Aerial view of discoloured liquid being discharged into the River Thames near Thames Water's Longreach Sewage Treatment Works on August 10, 2023.

The government’s new plan to tackle illegal sewage spills has not been well-received online.

Defra – the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs – revealed on Monday that it was going to start consultations about possibly banning bonuses for water company bosses if their firms breached their environmental commitments.

Yes – those responsible for what the government describes as “serious criminal breaches” might just face not having a bonus that year.

On one hand, these bonuses are certainly part of the sewage problem.

In 2023, ten water company bosses received bonuses adding up to £2.5m, even as our waterways are still heavily polluted.

And, over the last four years, those leading the water sector have taken home £26m in bonuses, benefits and incentives in total.

But, in 2022, sewage entered UK rivers and seas on average 825 time a day last year – and it was even higher the previous year.

So is just considering a potential ban on bonuses enough?

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), the official government account described this new move as part of its “tougher action” with the water regulator, Ofwat.

“Ofwat will consult on banning bonuses for water company bosses if a company has committed serious criminal breaches,” Defra wrote. “With @Ofwat, we’re holding water companies to account. If taken forward, this will apply to all executive board members and CEOs.”

Environment secretary Steve Barclay said: “In cases where companies have committed criminal breaches there is no justification whatsoever for paying out bonuses. It needs to stop now.”

The gov.uk website also explains that this could end up triggering a “successful prosecution” for significant pollution at a bathing site or conservative area.

Green MP Caroline Lucas slammed the news on social media.

She said: “Is that really all the government is prepared to do about the scandalous state of our waterways – have a consultation on maybe not giving bonuses to bosses of water companies which have broken the law?

“How low can the bar be?”

Fresh water campaigner Feargal Sharkey also criticised this announcement, telling Sky News this was just a “never-ending Greek tragedy”.

He said the government has promised to introduce other, more extremes measures to address the crisis before, but none have come into effect.

“I think they’re clearly now just getting confused,” he said, calling this crackdown on bonuses “electioneering gimmickery”.

He added that every single river in England is polluted – and claimed the water industry is one of the largest sources for that pollution.

Lucas and Sharkey were not the only one to criticise Defra’s announcement either, judging from the response on X.

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