• DEFRA to Use River Pollution Fines to Beat Budget Cuts

Water/Wastewater

DEFRA to Use River Pollution Fines to Beat Budget Cuts

Dec 15 2022

When it comes to river pollution, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has become synonymous with ineptitude and delay. Figures released for 2020 indicate that there was not a single river across England and Wales that qualified as having ‘good overall health’, a desperate state of affairs that harms the public, agriculture, and wildlife. But, as 2022 draws to a close, news has broken that DEFRA is delaying to the setting of water quality targets and that the Department may face budget cuts that will severely impair its ability to monitor rivers. Just three weeks ago, it seemed that the worst was yet to come.  

But at the end of last month, a ray of light broke through. In light of the government’s commitment to reducing DEFRA’s day-to-day expenditure (and public spending, in general), ministers have devised a new means of raising money for the Department that not only avoids nagging the taxpayer but incentivises a tougher attitude towards river pollution: fines that water companies must pay for polluting British rivers will be ring-fenced for spending on restorative projects, like the creation of wetlands which naturally filter pollutants, the re-vegetation of river banks for carbon sequestration and the re-meandering of British rivers to minimise bed dislocations. 

The Department’s recent experience has shown that this might just be a gold-mine. In the last six years, for instance, the Environment Agency has collected over £141m in fines as a result of just over 50 prosecutions against water and sewerage providers. In fact, it’s even simpler, since most of this money comes from just one big cash-cow, Southern Water, who had to fork over £90m, a record amount, in 2021. There’s even innovation in the sector: in the Spring, the government went public with new plans to streamline the fining process by expanding the Environment Agency’s capacity to issue penalties without lengthy (and costly) court cases.  

These may appear to be extraordinary sums and extraordinary measures but given the sheer level of pollution, the penalties seem only reasonable. To give you just a small taste (which, trust me, is the last thing you want), there were over 3m hours of overflows – that's totally untreated sewage flowing into rivers – across England in 2021 and at time of writing, there’s a major criminal investigation (the sector’s largest ever, in fact) being conducted by the Environment Agency and Ofwat, with more than 2,200 sites under suspicion. Indeed, it’s the opinion of the Water Minister, Rebecca Pow, that: “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.”  

It’s an intriguing idea, balancing current political strictures with pragmatic environmental concern – but the scheme has its critics. The campaign group WildFish, for instance, is seeking a judicial review in which it will argue that the Department’s overflow plan actually excludes the offending overflows and re-commits to unacceptable targets that could see the continued dumping of untreated sewage up until 2050. They contend that a fining system that doubles as a funding system provide ample incentive for fines to be treated by water companies less as a deterrent than as a means by which the right to pollute is merely purchased, a continuing source of revenue that may be discreetly welcomed by a cash-strapped Department. Nick Measham, WildFish’s Chief Executive, phrased the group’s position succinctly in a recent public statement: “If the plan is intended to deal with illegal discharges, it is unlawfully encouraging lawbreaking for years to come.” In other words, the scheme could turn out to be yet another misstep by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Maybe the worst really is yet to come.


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