Revealed: All wastewater companies miss targets for tackling pollution or sewage spills

All wastewater companies in England and Wales have failed to meet their targets to tackle pollution or sewage floods, The Independent can reveal.

The 11 largest companies monitored by water regulator Ofwat are together facing tens of millions of pounds in financial penalties for last year’s failings as the industry faces intense scrutiny at a time of widespread drought and concerns over sea pollution.

They include up to £28m for Thames Water flooding more than 2,000 properties and £8m for 372 separate pollution incidents by Southern Water, analysis of their latest annual reports by The Independent shows.

Jim McMahon, shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said the data “lays bare the negligence of water companies and Tory recklessness in allowing raw sewage to be dumped onto our beaches, onto our playing fields and into our seas, reservoirs and lakes”.

“No one should have to worry about being able to enjoy our areas of natural beauty or becoming ill from taking a dip in our waters,” he added.

The news comes as water companies pumped sewage into the sea last week because of overspills on the system caused by torrential rain, prompting a warning for swimmers to stay away from more than 50 beaches.

Water companies are monitored on everything from drinking water quality and the scale of leaks to customer experience, pollution and sewage spills into homes.

They are penalised or rewarded for missing or meeting targets and calculate the amounts they believe they must pay before being audited by Ofwat. The penalties and rewards are not paid by or handed out to companies but affect how much they can charge customers in the future.

An analysis of the figures in the firms’ 2021-22 annual reports by The Independent found that they face penalties totalling £75m, with around £17m for pollution and £58m for sewage flooding – almost triple the total £27m estimated penalties for the previous year.

Raw sewage was discharged after heavy rain in Seaford last week (Getty)
Raw sewage was discharged after heavy rain in Seaford last week (Getty)

Environmentalists say they want to see some of the penalties, as well as fines for illegal activity, used to repair environmental harm, as it emerged on Friday that raw sewage was discharged into the environment well over a million times in England and Wales between 2016 and 2021.

“No amount of financial penalties can undo the damage caused by wastewater companies polluting the environment or ease the trauma for customers that suffer the misery of seeing their home flooded with sewage,” said Mike Keil, senior director of policy at the Consumer Council for Water.

It comes as an analysis of the companies' annual reports by the Liberal Democrats found that the average executive’s pay and bonuses rose by a fifth compared to last year.

Paul de Zylva, of environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, said the top bosses of the worst offending companies should have their pay docked, instead of being rewarded for failure, adding that the “Environment Agency’s suggestion of jail terms for those responsible for major pollution incidents should be given serious consideration”.

Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said privatised water firms were “screwing us over, destroying our natural environment and compounding the climate crisis – all while the impotent regulator Ofwat has been letting companies off the hook for years”.

“The sooner we bring them back into public hands, the better,” she added.

There is also widespread concern that as the climate crisis is expected to make droughts and floods more frequent and severe in the UK that water infrastructure is not up to scratch.

Flooding in London in 2021 (PA Media)
Flooding in London in 2021 (PA Media)

“The entire infrastructure needs to be updated very, very rapidly to keep pace with the changing climate,” said Hannah Cloke, a professor of hydrology at the University of Reading. “When we do have a period of very dry weather or we do have really, really heavy rainfall, we pretty much have disasters across the board because everything starts to break.”

A Water UK spokesperson said companies agreed there was “an urgent need for action” and called on the government, regulators, water companies, agriculture and other sectors to “come together to create a comprehensive national plan to bring about the transformation in our rivers and waterways we all want to see”.

Water minister Steve Double said the government has been clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is “unacceptable” and said they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge “as a priority”.

Southern Water and Thames Water both pointed to the summer storms of 2021, which saw flooding in parts of London, as part of the reason for the high number of incidents.

A Southern Water spokesperson said: “We recognise that our performance has not been good enough. 2021 was a very challenging year, in part because of weather-related incidents, but we are determined to improve our service to customers and do better in protecting our environment.”

A Thames Water spokesperson said it recognised its performance in preventing pollution and sewer flooding was “still not good enough”, adding it would spend an extra £2bn on improvements.

An Ofwat spokesperson said it had imposed penalties and payments of over £250m on top of penalties for missing targets in the past five years in a bid to tackle the issue.

“In November 2021 we launched an unprecedented investigation into all wastewater companies, and we currently have enforcement cases open into six wastewater companies for potential failings in their sewage works,” a spokesperson said.