Water companies could face unlimited fines for pumping sewage into rivers and seasides

An activist campaigning for cleaners waterways. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Water companies could face unlimited fines and penalties under new government plans to tackle pollution.

Next week, environment secretary Therese Coffey is expected to announce plans that ministers believe will “make polluters pay”, with tougher fines levied on water companies put into a “water restoration fund”.

But opposition parties have dismissed the plans. Labour labelled the move “flimsy”, while the Liberal Democrats repeated the party’s call for Ms Coffey to resign.

It comes as the latest Environment Agency figures showed there were a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022 – an average of 824 a day.

Discharges fell by 19% in 2022 – but this was due to dry weather rather than any action taken by water companies, the agency said.

But amid public anger and political pressure over the condition of the UK’s waterways, Ms Coffey is expected to publish a six-week consultation on strengthening the Environment Agency’s ability to impose sanctions on water companies without going through the courts.

The government is believed to support a lifting of the upper cap on civil penalties on water companies, allowing unlimited fines.

Defra said the penalties would be quicker and easier to enforce, with the most serious cases still taken through criminal proceedings.

Currently, penalties and fines imposed by Ofwat are returned to the Treasury. But new government plans will see the money instead be returned to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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The government has been under serious pressure from campaigners to tackle pollution in recent months, with the new measures expected to form part of plans to toughen enforcement against companies.

Ms Coffey said that she could not agree more that “more needs to be done to protect” rivers, lakes and streams.

“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.

The new fund, she said, would ensure “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”.

But the early details of the plans have failed to convince opposition parties.

Speaking during a campaign visit in Kent, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “What the government has done to our rivers and beaches is turn them into open sewers.

“This is just a flimsy next step from the government."

A new Bill, introduced by shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon, would make it a legal requirement to monitor all sewage outlets, as well as creating a statutory underpinning for penalties for failures to adhere to such requirements.

Also included in the proposals are automatic fines for sewage dumping, as well as implementing a legally binding target to reduce it, while also creating a new requirement for the Secretary of State to publish a strategy on the reduction of sewage discharges.

Labour wants the Conservatives to allow time in Parliament for the Bill, although there is little to no prospect of the plan becoming law.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Campaigners have accused water companies of discharging sewage much more often than they should, including when there has been no rain, and have repeatedly called on water companies to use their profits to invest in more infrastructure.

Defra said that the new fund will be intended to help local groups identify the biggest issues and direct investment to where it is most needed, with the money going to support a range of projects including the restoration of wetlands, the creation of new habitats and adding natural bends to rivers to improve water quality.

The Liberal Democrats have stepped up their attacks on the government over the issue, calling on Ms Coffey to quit.

Environment spokesperson Tim Farron said the government’s plan was “pointless whilst it remains legal for water companies to dump sewage into swimming waters”.

He added: “It is a national scandal that water companies are allowed to pump sewage into our rivers and coastlines all because ministers refuse to get tough with them.”