Will water firms escape higher fines for pollution?

Campaigns, Central Government, Water Companies

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor and Adam Vaughan, Environment Editor writing in The Times on 13 February, reported that:

‘Water companies are set to avoid big fines for spilling sewage into rivers and seas as ministers fear the multimillion pound penalties could backfire. Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, is understood to believe fines of up to £250 million for polluters are “disproportionate” and is backing away from the plans.

‘A consultation due to open soon is expected to provide an opportunity to water down the planned increase in fines as regulators argue against “crazy” high penalties.

‘On 13 February The Times launched Clean It Up, a campaign to push the government and polluters to clean up the country’s rivers, lakes and beaches. It calls for a tougher Environment Agency, jail sentences and fines for water bosses responsible for repeated and serious pollution incidents, help for farmers to curb their impact on the environment, and more designated bathing waters.

‘In an article for The Times, the water quality activist Feargal Sharkey backs the campaign, saying: “I hope our politicians start holding the likes of the Environment Agency and economic regulator Ofwat to account.”

Smyth and Vaughan point out that Coffey is said to have been against the measure while she was deputy prime minister to Liz Truss and has refused to commit to higher fines.

‘Allies say that as part of the consultation process she wants to “make sure that fines are proportionate and easy to enforce”, saying she will “look at the evidence with a fresh pair of eyes and do what is most effective”…’

However, the Evening Standard states: ‘the Prime Minister has hit back at reports the Government is reconsidering super fines for water companies that dump sewage in Britain’s rivers. He wants to see firms that pollute UK waterways and seas “held to account”.

“I think that reporting is categorically not true,” Mr Sunak told reporters during a visit to Oldham. Actually I would welcome tougher fines for water companies and that’s what we’re putting in place.”

Meanwhile The Guardian reported on 14 February that campaigners are to make a high court challenge to the government’s plan to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers and seas in England, arguing it does not go far enough.

Cases to be taken to court by the Good Law Project and the charity Wild Fish, will put the storm overflow scheme under detailed scrutiny. They will argue that the plan will lead to raw sewage being discharged into waterways for decades to come and does not protect the majority of coastal areas designated as ecologically sensitive.

Surfers Against Sewage also campaigns for better water quality.