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Inspections on water companies to quadruple ‘to end routine lawbreaking’

Inspections on water companies will quadruple over the next year in a bid to crack down on pollution by firms, the Government has announced.

The measures to increase checks include up to 500 additional Environment Agency staff for inspections, enforcements and stronger regulation over the next three years.

Increased inspections and enforcement by the environmental regulator will be backed by around £55 million each year funded by the Environment Department (Defra) and from proposed charges levied on water companies.

Officials said the Environment Agency had already ramped up inspections on water companies’ infrastructure, with 930 completed so far this financial year.

This would rise to 4,000 a year by the end of March 2025 and 10,000 a year from April 2026, including an increase in unannounced inspections, to increase regulatory oversight of water firms and reducing self-monitoring.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said: “We are clear that we need to get much tougher with unannounced inspections to bring an end to the routine lawbreaking we have seen from water companies, which is what this announcement will deliver.

“We are going further to quadruple the Environment Agency’s regulatory capacity – allowing them to carry out 4,000 water company inspections by the end of the next financial year.”

Environment Agency chairman Alan Lovell said: “Last year, we set out measures to transform the way we regulate the water industry to uncover non-compliance and drive better performance.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay
Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said the Environment Agency would be able to carry out 4,000 water company inspections by the end of the next financial year (James Manning/PA)

“Today’s announcement builds on that. Campaign groups and the public want to see the Environment Agency better resourced to do what it does best, regulate for a better environment.

“Proposals to get extra boots on the ground to increase inspection visits will help further strengthen our regulation of the industry.”

It is the latest move by the Government to tackle concerns over levels of pollution being dumped into rivers, lakes and around the coasts from sources including overflow pipes and processing plants, harming wildlife and the health of beachgoers and affecting tourism and leisure industries such as angling.

It follows an increase in monitoring so that all storm overflows in England are now checked, the removal of the cap on civil penalties for water companies and plans to ban bonuses for water firm bosses who oversee serious criminal pollution.

Labour warned the move would not spell an end to self-monitoring by water companies, which the party said the Government had promised.

Shadow environment secretary Steve Reed accused the Conservatives of being too weak to stand up to water companies.

“Labour will put failing water companies under special measures to force them to clean up their toxic mess.

“We will end self-monitoring, immediately give the water regulator power to ban bonuses and make water bosses who continue to oversee law-breaking face criminal charges.”

Liberal Democrat Environment spokesperson Tim Farron said Tory ministers had “starved water inspectors of money and power for too long”.

“All they are doing is waking up and finally smelling the sewage. Election giveaways won’t fool anybody.

“Conservative Ministers have let water firms get away with scandal after scandal.

“The public know this is an act of desperation from a Conservative party who backed disgraced water firms over environmental campaigners,” he said.

A spokesperson for industry body Water UK said: “Water companies have long called for the Environment Agency to have all the tools it needs, so we welcome this announcement.

“As compliance is already at 99% for sewage treatment works however, the biggest difference to performance will come from more investment.

“Water companies are proposing to invest £96 billion over the next five years, almost double the current amount, to ensure the security of our water supply in the future and significantly reduce the amount of sewage entering rivers and seas.”