U.K. Government to Increase Penalties for Water Companies to £250million

Published: 07 October 2022

uk environment officeU.K. water companies could see their penalties increase 1,000-fold as pollution incidents throughout the country’s sewage systems continue to rise. (Photo: U.K. Government, License)

By Henry Pope

The U.K. government announced Monday its intention to raise civil penalties by 1,000-fold for the country’s water companies who pollute the environment, from the current £250,000 (US$286,733) fine up to a proposed £250 million ($286.7 million) penalty per violation.

Intended to act as a motivator to dramatically cut down on water-based pollutants, Ranil Jayawardena, the country’s Environment Secretary, stated that he hopes water companies will now heavily invest in critical infrastructure to stem the rising tide of serious pollution incidents over the past few years.

Last year, for instance, U.K. water companies failed to contain 62 pollution incidents that caused serious environmental damage, up from 44 incidents the year prior.

Jayawardena noted that if the country’s water companies continue to be responsible for rising levels of environmental harm, they could face civil and criminal penalties.

“I have been clear that if water companies don’t do what is expected, there will be consequences,” the environment secretary said. “Bigger financial penalties will act as a greater deterrent and push water companies to do more, and faster, when it comes to investing in infrastructure and improving the quality of our water.”

A 1,000-fold increase in the current cap-penalty, per individual violation, should get their attention, the Environment Agency hopes.

In line with the government’s push for its water companies to step up their fight against pollution is its Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, published in August this year. The plan proposes £56 billion ($64.2 billion) capital investment over 25 years to rectify shortcomings in how they process wastewater and sewage.

Storm overflows, the report explains, operate as safety valves and discharge excess sewage and rainwater into the environment when the system is under strain. This failsafe protects properties from flooding and prevents sewage from rising up into streets and homes during heavy storms.

But rising population levels have pushed England’s 15,000 storm overflows to their breaking point. Last year, 90 percent of storm overflows discharged at least once and five percent discharged over 100 times.

In response to these figures, a spokesperson from Anglian Water, which operates in the East of England region, told OCCRP on Thursday that “we’re reinvesting more than £200 million ($225 million) to reduce storm spills across the East of England [by 2025] as part of our commitment that storm overflows will not be the reason for unhealthy watercourses in our region by 2030.”

A Southern Water spokesperson similarly told OCCRP that the company is committed to “investing £2 billion between 2020-25” towards improving its services.

Frequent discharges of wastewater and sewage pose significant health and environmental concerns. Humans face increased exposure to water-based pathogens, while ecosystems can be flooded with pollutants such as microplastics and heavy metals.

Almost ten percent of the U.K.’s 15,000 overflow sites are in close proximity to designated bathing areas; a backup of sewage in those waters, at any time, would pose a significant threat to the health and well-being of the community’s inhabitants.

Furthermore, the latest Environment Agency assessment showed that 402 inland waterbodies in England—almost 10 percent in the country—failed to attain Good Ecological Status due to ill-equipped storm overflows and the resulting pollutants that seeped into the local ecosystems.

While Anglian Water noted that it is not performing up to standards in some areas, “protecting, restoring and improving our region’s environment is at the heart of our business, and we take this responsibility incredibly seriously,” a spokesperson told OCCRP.

As England is predominantly a coastal nation, any sewage polluting the environment’s water chemistry will invariably affect its population’s development for generations to come. It is from these concerns that water companies are now called upon to heavily invest in modernizing their infrastructures to rectify the environmental damages caused by storm overflows.

To simply do nothing would lead to a continued and increased risk to the water environment, public health, and sewer flooding, the report found.

And so, according to the government plan, water companies are now mandated with reducing overflow discharges by one-quarter from 2020 levels within the next three years. This rate is expected to drop by an additional 50 percent in high priority sites by 2035. And by 2050, no storm overflows will be permitted except in cases of exceptionally heavy rainfall.

“Our focus on protecting the environment remains resolute,” Anglian Water told OCCRP. “We’re ahead of schedule delivering our £800 million programme of investment to benefit the environment. We know there’s no room for complacency, and we’re absolutely determined to make meaningful progress towards achieving our zero pollutions goal.”

Southern Water, meanwhile, reported to OCCRP that the company is on-track towards reducing its 2021 pollution levels by 40 percent.

Other major U.K. water companies did not respond to requests for comment.

One recommendation outlined in the Environment Agency report was for water companies to better manage rainwater and to treat it as a resource, to the benefit of the people and the environment, rather than simply allow it to mix in with processed sewage.

That being said, “support from our government and regulatory system will be critical if we are to go further and faster,” Southern Water told OCCRP.

The British government anticipates that, in order to help pay for this £56 billion infrastructural refit, local water bills will eventually rise by an average of just over 10 percent of the current rate by 2050.

If water companies fail to comply with the outlined targets, they could be subjected to fines upwards of a quarter of a billion pounds, while board members could face prison sentences for failing to contain serious incidents, according to the Environment Agency report.

“This 1,000-fold increase sends a clear signal that we want clean rivers and coastlines,” Jayawardena said. “The duty falls to the water companies to deliver – the polluter must pay.”

This story has been updated with a comment from the Southern Water company.