Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey has today (Monday 20 February) demanded water companies share plans on improving Britain’s water infrastructure.
The fresh move is part of the drive for better water quality, building on significant work with industry and regulators, allowing government to track progress of investment and new projects.
The Environment Secretary has demanded a clear assessment & action plan on every storm overflow from every water and sewerage company in England, prioritising those that are spilling more than a certain number of times a year, and those spilling into bathing waters and high priority nature sites.
She has also set out more detail on how water companies will face higher penalties that are quicker and easier to enforce.
Any water company caught illegally polluting our waters currently faces enforcement action from the Environment Agency. This can range from Enforcement Undertakings – companies paying to restore damage to the environment – through to prosecution in the courts.
The most serious cases are dealt with through criminal prosecutions. Fines of more than £102 million were handed out in 2021. Last year it was announced that money from these fines will be re-invested into schemes that benefit the environment, rather than being returned to the Treasury.
However, prosecutions can take a long time to bring to a conclusion. That is why the government is consulting on making it easier and quicker for penalties to be issued so that polluters are made to pay immediately when damage is caused to our rivers and seas.
On the upper limit of fines, all options – including £250 million – remain on the table. There will be a public consultation in the spring to find an upper limit that is a real and serious deterrent.
Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said:
People are concerned about the impacts of sewage entering our rivers and seas and I am crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable.
We need to be clear that this is not a new problem. Storm overflows have existed for over a century. The law has always allowed for discharges, subject to regulation. That is how our Victorian sewers are built – wastewater and rain are carried in the same pipe. When it reaches a certain height, it pours into another pipe and into rivers.
And while we have done more about it than any other government – we were the first government to require companies to start comprehensively monitoring spillage so that we could see what was actually going on – there is still significant work to do.
Through the largest infrastructure programme in water company history we will tackle the problem at source, with more investment on projects like the new Thames Tideway super sewer. I am making sure that regulators have the powers they need to take action when companies don’t follow the rules, including higher penalties that are quicker and easier to enforce.
I am now demanding every company to come back to me with a clear plan for what they are doing on every storm overflow, prioritising those near sites where people swim and our most precious habitats.
The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, published last year, required water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history - £56 billion capital investment over 25 years.
More detail on the government’s plans to deliver clean and plentiful water were also set out last month in its Environmental Improvement Plan 2023, a five-year strategy for a cleaner, greener country.