Water companies face unlimited fines in crackdown on sewage spills

Water companies pumped waste for more than 1.75 million hours last year (Getty/iStock)
Water companies pumped waste for more than 1.75 million hours last year (Getty/iStock)

Water companies face unlimited fines under government plans to crack down on the sewage blighting English rivers and coastlines.

Days after it was revealed that the firms had pumped waste for more than 1.75 million hours last year – an average of 824 spills a day – ministers say they want to make polluters pay.

Two years ago, Southern Water was fined £90m after it pleaded guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage across Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.

Now ministers want to remove a cap on civil penalties for water companies, making fines unlimited. The money would be used to clean up waterways.

Environment secretary Therese Coffey, who has faced calls to resign over the controversy, admitted that “more needs to be done” to protect rivers and coastal waters.

“I want to make sure that regulators have the powers and tools to take tough action against companies that are breaking the rules, and to do so more quickly,” she said.

“I will be making sure that money from higher fines and penalties – taken from water company profits, not customers – is channelled directly back into the rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed,” she added.

As well as poisoning swimmers, sewage damages the ecosystems of rivers, encouraging blooms of algae which suffocate other forms of life.

Since 2015, the Environment Agency has secured fines amounting to more than £144m, including the £90m penalty for Southern Water.

At the moment, the income from fines imposed by the regulator Ofwat is returned to the Treasury. But under the new plans, the money would go to a fund to be used for projects that improve water quality. Companies would still be subject to criminal prosecution in the most serious cases.

The move is part of a new Plan for Water, to be published by ministers shortly, which will set out a strategy to tackle pollution and boost the water supply.

Examples of projects that could be supported by the new fund include efforts to restore wetlands, create new habitats, and tackle invasive non-native species, as well as a measure known as “rewiggling”, which is when natural bends are added back into rivers to improve water quality and biodiversity.

Murky brown sea surrounds a Cornwall beach after a sewage spill (covecottages)
Murky brown sea surrounds a Cornwall beach after a sewage spill (covecottages)

The government says that around 310 miles of river each year are currently improved through community-led projects.

The latest sewage figures show that there were a total of 301,091 spills in 2022. Water companies are only supposed to discharge sewage from storm overflows during heavy rain, and under strict conditions. But campaigners say spills happen more often than they should, including when there has been no rain. They have called for water companies to use more of their profits to invest in infrastructure.

The latest sewage figures actually represent a fall of almost 20 per cent from the previous year. But John Leyland, the executive director of the Environment Agency, said this was “down to dry weather, not water company action”.

“We want to see quicker progress from water companies on reducing spills and acting on monitoring data,” he said on Friday. “We expect them to be fully across the detail of their networks, and to maintain and invest in them to the high standard that the public expect and the regulator demands.”

Currently, nine out of 10 stormwater overflows provide monitoring data. Water companies have been given until the end of this year to fit monitors on all overflows.

On Friday, the Liberal Democrats called on Ms Coffey to resign and accused her of presiding over a “national scandal”.

Labour said data it released this weekend shows that, on average, a new dumping event takes place every two and a half minutes. This means that rivers, lakes, seas and beaches have had 1,276 years’ worth of raw sewage pumped into them over just a seven-year period, the party said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government has turned the country’s rivers and beaches into “open sewers”, and described the Tories’ plan for unlimited fines as “flimsy”.

Speaking at an event in Gillingham, Kent, on Saturday, he said: “What we need is a strong plan, mandatory monitoring so we know exactly where this is happening, automatic fines, and making sure that those that are responsible are held to account ... They [the government] need to take full responsibility for this ‘open sewer’ policy that they have inflicted on the country.”