Anglian Water told it needs "significant improvement' in Environment Agency report

A national Day of Action on sewage pollution was co-ordinated by Surfers Against Sewage earlier this year Credit: PA

Water company bosses should face jail for the worst pollution incidents according to the Environment Agency.

The agency's annual environmental performance report for water companies said it was the "worst we have seen for years", as serious pollution incidents increased to 62 in 2021, the highest total since 2013.

Four companies , including Anglian Water, Thames, Wessex and Yorkshire Water - were rated only two stars, which means they require significant improvement.

While total pollution incidents were down slightly to 1,883, there has not been any trend towards improvement since 2015, the Environment Agency report warned.

It comes as environmental campaigners, including the former singer Feargal Sharkey, have accused the government of "allowing the destruction of our rivers" over fears that not enough is being done to tackle pollution.

Campaigners also say the Government is not doing enough to protect our rivers. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Environment Agency chairwoman Emma Howard Boyd said: "It's appalling that water companies' performance on pollution has hit a new low.

"Water quality won't improve until water companies get a grip on their operational performance.

"For years people have seen executives and investors handsomely rewarded while the environment pays the price.

She added: "Company directors let this happen. We plan to make it too painful for them to continue like this.

"The amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited but fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a chief executive's salary.

"We need courts to impose much higher fines. Investors should no longer see England's water monopolies as a one-way bet."

The agency is also calling for prison sentences for chief executives and board members whose companies are responsible for the worst spills, and for company directors to be struck off, so they cannot move on in their careers, after illegal environmental damage.

A spokesperson for the Environment Department (Defra) said: "This report shows that water companies are ignoring their legal responsibilities.

"Water company chiefs cannot continue to make huge profits whilst polluting our waters.

"We will not tolerate this behaviour and we will take robust action if we don't see urgent improvements."

A spokesman for Anglian Water said the rating reflected a challenging year.

In response to the two star rating, an Anglian Water spokesperson said:

“Protecting, restoring and improving our region’s environment is at the heart of our business, and we take this responsibility incredibly seriously. 

"While we’ve performed well in some areas, we are not where we need to be in others. We’re extremely disappointed to have dropped to a two-star rating last year.

 “This rating reflects a challenging year, especially given the extreme rainfall and widespread flooding we saw at the start of 2021.

"We learned a lot at the time, and while the impact was too significant for us to recover in 2021, we’ve significantly changed how we work since.

 “Already in the first six months of this year we’ve seen a reduction in pollution incidents, and an improvement in our operational performance.

“Our focus on protecting the environment remains resolute - we’re ahead of schedule delivering our £800 million programme of investment to benefit the environment.

"We know there’s no room for complacency, and we’re absolutely determined to make meaningful progress towards achieving our zero pollutions goal.”