Therese Coffey faces calls to resign after water firms dumped sewage over 800 times a day last year
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New figures from the Environment Agency show sewage was spilled 301,091 times in England and Wales last year - equivalent to 824 times per day. This is lower than the 370,000 spills in 2021, but the agency said this was due to dry weather and not the actions of water companies.
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said it was a “national scandal” and accused the environment secretary of ignoring “environmental crimes” on her watch.
Figures also reveal that pay and bonus packages for water firm bosses soared by a fifth in 2021-22, despite significant sewage spills in Britain’s waterways.
The average pay for executives at 10 firms across England and Wales jumped to £1.1 million in 2021-22 - up by £193,000 on average.
‘National scandal happening on the Conservatives’ watch’
The Lib Dems have made tackling sewage a key part of their local election campaign. Speaking at the party’s spring conference earlier this month, Davey predicted it would cost the Conservatives “dozens of seats” at the next general election.
He said: “These figures are a damning verdict on the government’s failure to protect our treasured rivers and lakes. This is a national scandal and it is happening on the Conservatives’ watch. A historic drought is no excuse for this government’s inaction and failure.
“The environment secretary has let water companies get away with these environmental crimes for far too long. It is clear she simply doesn’t care enough to get tough on these polluting firms.”
He added: “Therese Coffey must now resign or be sacked so we can have an environment secretary who actually cares about saving our rivers from destruction.”
Jim McMahon MP, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said the government has “no respect for British communities” for allowing 824 raw sewage discharges to occur daily last year.
He said: “People should be able to just enjoy where they live, work and holiday without having to worry about the Tory sewage scandal sullying their areas. Local businesses shouldn’t have to worry about government failures hitting the tourism trade.”
The Environment Agency said it will be carrying out further assessments of the latest data, which will inform the planning of the Water Industry National Environment Programme for the next round of water company environmental improvements in the 2024 price review (2025 to 2030).
It said the data has also informed the development of the new duties brought in under the Environment Act 2021, including a new duty on water companies to publish near real-time information on the operation of storm overflows and to monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage treatment works.
The agency added that storm overflows account for 7% of waterbodies failing to reach Good Ecological Status.
Water Minister Rebecca Pow said: “The volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is unacceptable and we are taking action to make sure polluters are held to account.
“By bringing in comprehensive monitoring – up from just 7% in 2010 to the most extensive level ever now being at 91% – this government and its regulators have enabled the extent of sewage discharges to be revealed, so that we are better equipped to tackle this challenge.
“We have set the strictest targets ever on water companies to reduce sewage discharges, and are requiring them to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in their history – an estimated £56 billion in capital investment over the next 25 years, driving more improvements. This is the game-changing action that will make the difference we need.”