Water companies spent more than nine million hours pumping raw sewage into Britain’s seas and rivers since 2016, new data shows.
According to Labour’s analysis of data from the Environment Agency, water companies spent 9,427,355 hours discharging sewage between 2016 and 2021 into the sea and rivers across the UK. That figure is an increase of 2,553 per cent over five years.
In 2016, the Environment Agency recorded 100,533 hours’ worth of spills. By 2021, that figure had rocketed to 2,667,452.
The Labour Party, which obtained the data under Freedom of Information laws, has warned that the full scale of pollution could be much worse.
Jim McMahon, Labour’s environment spokesman, accused the water giants of cutting corners to “pump filthy raw sewage on to our playing fields and into our waters”.
He added: “Labour will put a stop to this disgraceful practice by ensuring there can be enforcement of unlimited fines, holding water company bosses legally and financially accountable for their negligence, and by toughening up regulations that currently allow the system to be abused.”
This summer, warnings have been issued to holidaymakers to avoid 50 beaches across England and Wales because the sea has been polluted by sewage.
The Safer Seas and Rivers Service, run by campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, revealed sewage had been discharged into seas at beaches in Cornwall, Devon, Sussex, Lancashire and Cumbria, among other places, and warned that bathers could be put at risk.
The most concentrated areas were across the south coast.
Water companies are allowed to release sewage into rivers and seas to prevent sewage works becoming overwhelmed during periods of heavy rain.
But critics say that firms have failed to invest in better infrastructure such as storage tanks, preferring to pay dividends to shareholders and bonuses to top executives.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the Government was “taking action” on sewage discharges, with the current administration being the first to set an expectation on water companies to significantly reduce discharges from storm overflows.
A spokesperson for Southern Water said: “This week’s heavy rain has fallen on to dry ground that can’t absorb surface run-off, meaning that more rain than usual has overwhelmed our network.
“This led to some overflows - which are used to protect homes, schools, businesses and hospitals from flooding - spilling excess water into the sea.
“These discharges are heavily diluted. We are dedicated to significantly reducing storm overflows and are running innovative pilot schemes across the region to reduce the amount of rainfall entering our combined sewers by 2030.”
Southern Water was fined £90million last year for widespread pollution and just last week, a number of beaches were forced to be closed during the weekn due to the sewage pollution Sussex.