Water companies will face unlimited fines for polluting seas and rivers under new plans, as the Government was accused of ‘turning Britain’s waterways into an open sewer’.
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey has faced calls to resign for presiding over a ‘national scandal’, as new figures showed there were an average of 824 sewage spills per day last year.
That is nearly 20% lower than in 2021, but John Leyland, executive director of the Environment Agency, put the drop ‘down to dry weather, not water company action’.
Ms Coffey is expected to announce next week plans that ministers believe will ‘make polluters pay’, with tougher fines levied on water companies put into a ‘water restoration fund’.
Part of the plan will see her publish a six-week consultation on strengthening the Environment Agency’s ability to impose sanctions on water companies without going through the courts.
The Government is believed to support a lifting of the upper cap on civil penalties on water companies, allowing unlimited fines.
Defra said the penalties would be quicker and easier to enforce, with the most serious cases still taken through criminal proceedings.
Ministers have been under serious pressure from campaigners to tackle pollution in recent months, with the new measures expected to form part of plans to toughen enforcement against companies.
Opposition parties have also condemned the Government, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer telling The Guardian that ministers were ‘turning Britain’s waterways into an open sewer’.
The Liberal Democrats have called on Ms Coffey to quit over the issue.
Leader Sir Ed Davey said: ‘These figures are a damning verdict on the Government’s failure to protect our treasured rivers and lakes. This is a national scandal and it is happening on the Conservatives’ watch.
‘A historic drought is no excuse for this Government’s inaction and failure. The environment secretary has let water companies get away with these environmental crimes for far too long.
‘It is clear she simply doesn’t care enough to get tough on these polluting firms.
‘Therese Coffey must now resign or be sacked so we can have an environment secretary who actually cares about saving our rivers from destruction.
‘If the Prime Minister fails to take action now, we will hold him personally to account for killing our rivers and wildlife.’
Ms Coffey said: ‘I know how important our beautiful rivers, lakes, streams and coastlines are for people and nature – and I couldn’t agree more that more needs to be done to protect them.
‘I want to make sure that regulators have the powers and tools to take tough action against companies that are breaking the rules, and to do so more quickly.
‘Through the Water Restoration Fund, I will be making sure that money from higher fines and penalties – taken from water company profits, not customers – is channelled directly back into the rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed.
‘We know that around 310 miles of rivers each year have been improved through community-led projects – we must build on that success.’
Currently, penalties and fines imposed by Ofwat are returned to the Treasury.
But new Government plans will see the money instead be returned to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Campaigners have accused water companies of discharging sewage much more often than they should, including when there has been no rain, and have repeatedly called on water companies to use their profits to invest in more infrastructure.
Defra said that the new fund will be intended to help local groups identify the biggest issues and direct investment to where it is most needed, with the money going to support a range of projects including the restoration of wetlands, the creation of new habitats and adding natural bends to rivers to improve water quality.
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