While all eyes were on the leadership election, the Environment Agency published its annual report on the environmental performance of water and sewerage companies. The agency has suffered from severe cuts to staff and that has limited its operational effectiveness. But it has too often pulled its punches, preferring diplomatic niceties to forceful language.
No longer. Outgoing chair Emma Howard Boyd didn't mince her words in her last report on water and sewage. She called for prison sentences for the chief executives and board members of the companies responsible for the most serious pollution incidents. Company directors should be struck off. "Water companies exist to serve the public. Their environmental performance is a breach of trust. The polluter must pay."
Locally the most striking finding was that more than half of serious pollution incidents were from assets of 3 water companies (Anglian Water - 14, Southern Water - 12 and Thames Water - 12). In other words, our water company performed worst. overall, it was rated as in need of improvement.
Reacting to the report Tim Farron Lib Dem Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said:
For months we have been calling for these water companies to pay for dirtying our precious rivers and beaches. Time and time again, Ministers defended them whilst otters were poisoned and we swam in sewage infested waters.
Ministers must now wake up and smell the sewage. They can't ignore the Environment Agency like they ignored the public.
We need a Sewage Tax on water companies making outrageous multi-billion pound profits. Why should they profit off destroying our environment? The whole thing stinks.
The Environment Agency report sets out that the number of serious pollution incidents have increased to 62, their highest since 2013 and there was no significant improvement in the total number of pollution incidents - 1,883 a year.
Lib Dem analysis found that water companies discharged sewage 772,009 times during 2020 and 2021, for a total of 5,751,524 hours. Meanwhile, water company bosses paid themselves £48.1 million over the same two years, including £27.6 million in bonuses.
The highest polluters are Southern Water and South West Water. The least polluting are Northumbrian Water, Seven Trent Water and United Utilities.
In her report, Emma Howard Boyd said:
The water companies will only stop behaving like this if they are forced to. The amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited, but fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a Chief Executive's salary. We need courts to impose much higher fines for serious and deliberate pollution incidents. The threat of significant impending financial penalties has an impact. Investors should no longer see England's water monopolies as a one-way bet.
Repeat offenders can now expect criminal prosecutions for less serious environmental incidents where once the Environment Agency would have used civil powers. We would like to see prison sentences for Chief Executives and Board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents. We would also like to see company directors being struck off so they cannot simply delete illegal environmental damage from their CV and move on to their next role.