Water companies face unlimited fines for dumping sewage into UK rivers under new plans

Ministers want to lift the £250,000 penalty cap and see money from penalties channelled into a Water Restoration Fund rather than the Treasury

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Water companies could face unlimited fines for dumping sewage into rivers and the sea under new government plans.

Ministers want to lift a cap of £250,000 for penalties for firms that release sewage with the plans set to be unveiled in the coming days.

Companies are allowed to discharge untreated sewage into rivers in exceptional circumstances such as during heavy rainfall, but they can be acting illegally if they pump out sewage when it is dry.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said she would "be making sure that money from higher fines and penalties - taken from water company profits, not customers - is channelled directly back into rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed".

Currently this money goes to the Treasury but the new plans will see money funnelled into a Water Restoration Fund instead.

The government has said that the fund will be used to help restore wetlands, create new habitats in important nature sites, and better manage rivers. It said it will release further detail on the Water Restoration Fund management in due course.

Ms Coffey also wants the Environment Agency (EA) to be able to impose sanctions without going through the courts although it is still expected that serious cases will go through criminal proceedings.

The news comes after latest figures from the EA showed the extent of the sewage scandal, which the government has said is unacceptable.

Official figures showed an average of 825 sewage spills per day into England’s waterways last year - a total of 301,081 discharges.

It represents a 19% decrease from 2021, but the EA said the drop is largely down to drier weather rather than the actions of water companies.

Water companies could face unlimited fines for dumping sewage into rivers and the sea. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)  Water companies could face unlimited fines for dumping sewage into rivers and the sea. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)
Water companies could face unlimited fines for dumping sewage into rivers and the sea. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock)

Charles Watson, chairman and founder of River Action, said removing the cap on fines may mean the government "has finally woken up to the huge public outrage to what’s happened to our rivers".

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Watson said: "At the moment the penalty regimes for water companies does not provide a big enough deterrent and by uncapping fines there is now potential of real teeth.”

He questioned how the water restoration fund would be enforced, explaining that environmental protection through the EA had suffered cutbacks which limited its ability to "monitor and bring to book polluters".

Water UK, which represents the water industry, insisted there were "very high levels of compliance.”

It said in a statement: "So while enforcement is vital if rules are broken, it will only ever be a tiny part of the effort to restore rivers to where they need to be. The vast majority of improvement will come from investment - where we are bringing forward £56 billion to accelerate work on storm overflows."

Labour responded to the latest figures slamming the government for allowing waterways to be treated as "open sewers".

Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said the UK needed a "strong plan" to tackle sewage and he was "disgusted with what’s been going on".

Labour previously announced proposals to make monitoring all sewage outlets mandatory, and to impose automatic fines for sewage dumping if it gains power.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats called on Ms Coffey to resign over the figures and the Green Party said water companies should face greater accountability.

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.”

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