Unlimited fines in pipeline for sewage dumpers
Water companies will face unlimited fines for polluting in a new crackdown by ministers after “unacceptable” new data showed they are still releasing sewage for more than a million hours a year.
The Government will unveil a new plan to deal with polluting water companies, including ring-fencing gains from fines and penalties to fund water restoration projects.
The Environment Agency will be given powers to impose unlimited civil penalties – currently capped at £250,000 – under plans to be consulted on in coming days.
It comes after the Government said on Friday that the number of sewage spills was still unacceptable despite a drop of 19 per cent compared to 2021, which it attributed largely to last year’s dry weather rather than water company improvements.
The latest data from the Environment Agency showed that sewage was released into England’s waterways more than 300,000 times last year.
“The volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is unacceptable and we are taking action to make sure polluters are held to account,” said Rebecca Pow, the water minister.
Overall, water companies spilled sewage from their overflow systems a total of 301,091 times in 2022 in England – an average of 824 per day.
Companies are permitted to spill from their overflow systems only in exceptional circumstances, such as heavy rain, to stop sewage backing up into people’s homes.
Wealden in Sussex, served by Southern Water, saw the biggest increase in sewage spill hours of any local authority district, with a rise of 31 per cent.
A sewage outflow system in the village of Maresfield, in Wealden, discharged for more than 10 hours a week last year, an increase of 1,600 per cent on the previous year. In nearby Alfriston, a storm overflow spilled for more than 1,000 hours in 2021, a doubling from the previous year.
Southern Water pointed to higher than average rainfall in the region last year compared to other areas of the country that remained drier than normal.
Toby Willison, its director of environment and quality, said: “We are already exceeding the government’s expectations for spills per overflow. However, we know this still isn’t good enough and are working extremely hard to drive down storm overflows.”
United Utilities was the worst performing water company in the Environment Agency data released on Friday, spilling more than 69,000 times last year for 425,491 hours, the equivalent of 1,300 spills a week. It said it had met its 2025 targets but added: “We know there is much more to be done.”
The Government has promised to increase the level of on-the-spot fines that the Environment Agency can levy against polluting water firms to avoid lengthy court cases.
Lib Dems say Environment Secretary should resign
Therese Coffey, the Environment Secretary, had initially pushed back on a suggestion to increase the level of fines from £250,000 to £250 million over concerns about the impact on water companies’ financial resilience, but is now expected to act to give the Environment Agency powers to impose unlimited fines following calls from campaigners.
In the coming days, water companies are also expected to be given powers to increase their investment in infrastructure that could stop systems getting blocked.
The Liberal Democrats said on Friday that Ms Coffey should resign over what it said was “the Government’s failure to protect our treasured rivers and lakes” and claimed the Environment Secretary “has let water companies get away with these environmental crimes for far too long”.
A spokesman for Water UK, which represents the industry, said the new data was “an important milestone and the fourth consecutive year we have seen a fall in the number of spills from each storm overflow”.
The spokesman said: “There remains much more to be done, and there will be bumps in the road, but companies are committed to building on this positive news.”
Thérèse Coffey, the Environment Secretary, said: "I know how important our beautiful rivers, lakes, streams and coastlines are for people and nature – and I couldn’t agree more than more needs to be done to protect them.
"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."