Water company fines in England to be used for environmental improvements

<span>Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Water company fines for pollution are to be used to pay for environmental improvements in England rather than given to the Treasury, the government has said.

Since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 56 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies, securing fines of more than £141m. Most of these were from one company, Southern Water, which received a record penalty of £90m last year.

Campaigners have argued that fines from water pollution should be used to support the victim of the damage – the environment – directly.

On Wednesday, the environment minister Rebecca Pow said fines for water pollution would be ringfenced for environmental improvements rather than be passed to the Treasury.

“The volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is unacceptable, and can cause significant harm to our wildlife and sensitive habitats,” said Pow. “It is right that water companies are made to pay when they break the rules, but it is also right that this money is then channelled back into improving water quality.

“Water company fines reached a record level last year, and moving forward these plans will significantly increase funding that will be used to recover, protect and enhance our natural environment.”

In 2021, raw sewage was dumped in English rivers by water companies for nearly 3m hours. The Environment Agency and Ofwat are carrying out a major investigation into potentially illegal sewage discharges, which involves more than 2,200 treatment works.

This year, the government published its Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which orders water companies to invest £56bn capital investment over 25 years to reduce sewage discharges. The plan has been criticised by conservationists as lacking immediacy.

The campaign group WildFish is seeking to challenge the plan via a judicial review and lodged papers at the high court last week. They argue the storm overflow plan fails to deal with the overflows that are causing the problem, is confusing and contradictory and sets targets that would allow water companies to continue dumping unacceptable amounts of raw sewage over a prolonged period, in some cases up to 2050.

Nick Measham, the chief executive of WildFish, said existing regulations making it clear that raw sewage discharges must only take place in exceptional circumstances had been in place for years. He said the underlying cause of the problems was the continued failure of the water companies to comply with the duties imposed on them, and of the government to properly enforce them. The new plan did not deal with that, he said.

“If the plan is intended to deal with illegal discharges, it is unlawfully encouraging lawbreaking for years to come. If it is not intended to deal with these illegal discharges, it is irrelevant,” he said.

“Its failure to deal with the vast majority of relevant outfalls … is unacceptable.”