Water companies face unlimited fines in crackdown on sewage spills

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

Days after it was revealed firms 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 £90 million 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 Thérèse Coffey, who has faced calls to resign over the controversy, admitted “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 of over £144 million, including the £90 million for Southern Water.

At the moment, fines imposed by the regulator Ofwat are returned to the Treasury. But under the new plans, the money would go to a new fund to be used for projects that improve water quality. Criminal prosecution would still be used 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 plans to tackle pollution and boost water supplies.

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

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

The latest sewage figures show 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 strictly permitted 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 are actually a nearly 20 per cent fall 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 in 10 stormwater overflows provide monitoring data. Water companies have been given until the end of this year to fit monitors on all overflows.

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

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