Environment Secretary announces water firms to face fines of up to £250m for sewage dumping

Hundreds of people protest against sewage dumping at a beach in St Leonards-on-Sea near Hastings in August. Credit: ITV News

Water companies that dump sewage in rivers and seas will face fines of up to £250 million, the new Environment Secretary has vowed.

Ranil Jayawardena warned water company chiefs that if they do not do more to prevent effluent flowing into open water, he will institute an up to 1,000-fold increase in civil fines.

He was set to tell the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Monday: “On my first day in office I met water company bosses to give them their report card. I’ll be polite: could do better."

“Privatisation has put in £170 billion of investment into our water infrastructure already, and the private sector will now put in another £56 billion more."

“And, if they don’t deliver, I can confirm to you today that we will take forward plans to lift the Environment Agency’s maximum civil fine for each individual breach of the rules from up to just £250,000, to up to £250 million.”

The plan involves launching a formal consultation on lifting the current £250,000 cap for Environment Agency fines for water firms that breach environmental rules.

There has been growing public outrage in recent years at the volume of raw or partially treated sewage pumped into the UK’s rivers and coastal waters.

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Water firms are being criticised for not investing money back into the UK’s outdated water infrastructure, with mounting pressure on ministers to intervene.

Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, the Conservative government outlined plans to crack down on spills by requiring utility companies to invest £56 billion over 25 years to combat the impact of storm overflows.

At Labour’s conference last week, shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said water bosses would face prison sentences for the worst pollution incidents under a Labour government.

He said his party would introduce a legally binding target to end 90% of sewage discharges by 2030 and stronger sanctions and fines for bosses and companies who fail to do so.

Labour also attacked Prime Minister Liz Truss’s record while she was environment secretary, blaming her for £24 million of funding cuts for environmental protection, including surveillance of water companies to prevent sewage dumping.