DEFRA to Remove All Caps on Fines for River Polluters
Apr 17 2023
The UK government plans to remove the cap on civil penalties for water companies and introduce unlimited fines to combat the increasing sewage pollution of English rivers and coastlines. Last year, companies discharged waste for over 1.75 million hours, averaging 824 spills per day.
In 2021, Southern Water faced a £90m fine after admitting to thousands of illegal sewage discharges in Kent, Hampshire, and Sussex. The new proposal aims to channel the fines towards cleaning up waterways.
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey acknowledged the necessity to protect rivers and coastal waters, stating that regulators must have the power to act against rule-breaking companies. She assured that the money collected from fines would be used for cleaning rivers, lakes, and streams without burdening customers.
Sewage spills damage ecosystems and endanger swimmers. Since 2015, the Environment Agency has imposed over £144m in fines, including Southern Water's £90m penalty.
Under the new proposal, income from fines will no longer go to the Treasury but instead be allocated to a fund for projects improving water quality. Criminal prosecution will remain for serious cases. The upcoming Plan for Water will outline strategies to tackle pollution and enhance water supply.
Examples of potential projects include wetland restoration, habitat creation, invasive species control, and "rewiggling" rivers to improve water quality and biodiversity.
Although sewage spills decreased by nearly 20% in 2022, John Leyland, Environment Agency Executive Director, attributed the drop to dry weather, not water company action. Leyland called for faster progress from water companies in spill reduction and better network monitoring, maintenance, and investment.
Water companies must install monitors on all overflows by the end of 2023. The Liberal Democrats and Labour Party have criticized the government's handling of the issue, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer calling the unlimited fines proposal "flimsy" and urging stronger action.
The government plans to address all pollution sources, including plastics and agricultural chemicals, by lifting the £250,000 cap on penalties for sewage dumping. The Water Restoration Fund will redirect money from fines to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
While Water UK claims high compliance levels and emphasizes the importance of investment for improvement, the government considers the volume of spillages unacceptable. Coffey aims to enable the Environment Agency to impose sanctions without court involvement, though serious cases will still face criminal proceedings.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats propose mandatory monitoring of all sewage outlets and automatic fines for sewage dumping. The Green Party advocates for greater water company accountability.
The Water Restoration Fund will finance projects such as wetland restoration, habitat creation in nature sites, and river management. River Action founder Charles Watson praised the removal of fine caps as a potential deterrent but questioned the enforcement of the water restoration fund due to Environment Agency cutbacks.
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