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Water Companies have Paid Nearly Half a Billion in Fines for a Decade of Violations

As the Government faces criticism for its Environment Bill, new data reveals the extent of fines paid by the UK’s water companies

Raw sewage mixing with clean river water in the River Kent, Cumbria. Photo: Ashley Cooper/Alamy

Water Companies have Paid Nearly Half a Billion in Fines for a Decade of Violations

As the Government faces criticism for its Environment Bill, new data reveals the extent of fines paid by the UK’s water companies

The UK’s water companies have paid a total of £405,437,850 in fines for environmental, water service, workplace health and safety, and labour violations since 2010, new data analysed by Byline Times reveals. 

Using Good Jobs First’s ‘Violation Tracker‘, the data exposes the extent to which water companies have fallen foul of various laws designed to protect the environment, consumers and employees. 

The analysis comes after MPs faced criticism for voting down an amendment to the Environment Bill, which would have placed a legal duty on water companies in England and Wales “to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage”.

Environment Secretary George Eustice recommended his Conservative colleagues to reject the amendment, with 265 MPs voting against the change. 

There has been growing concern about the amount of untreated sewage being dumped in rivers and beaches in the UK. In October, Southend beach in Essex was closed after raw sewage spilled onto the streets. During the same period, swimmers and surfers were warned to avoid 17 beaches in Dorset after sewage was emptied into the sea. 

The Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage have both created interactive maps demonstrating the extent to which the UK’s waterways and beaches are unsafe to swim in. 

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In September, a shortage of sewage treatment chemicals led to the Government telling wastewater plants in England that they may be able to discharge effluent that has not been fully treated because of disruption caused by “supply chain failure”. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU also means that is no longer bound by its environmental regulations – including on sewage. 

According to Environment Agency data, water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times in 2020.

Water Violations 

The company that paid the largest total in fines was Southern Water Services Ltd, covering east Kent, parts of Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. It has paid £219,465,303 since 2010.

Its largest fine totalled £126,000,000, after Southern Water was forced by the Water Services Regulation Authority in 2019 to pay “penalties and payments to customers following serious failures in the operation of its sewage treatment sites and for deliberately misreporting its performance”.

This year, Southern Water paid a £90,000,000 fine after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal discharges of sewage which polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex. 104 days after the fine, Southern Water was accused of dumping sewage at 60 locations across southern England. 

A group of infrastructure funds, pension funds and private-equity investors own Southern Water through Greensands Holdings. They are managed or represented by JP Morgan Asset Management, UBS Asset Management, Hermes Investment Management and Whitehelm Capital. Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong Infrastructure and The Li Ka Shing Foundation are direct investors.

The water company with the second-highest number of fines was Thames Water Utilities Ltd, which was sanctioned 86 times for environmental, water services, workplace safety and labour violations. 

In 2018, the firm was forced to pay £120,000,000 for failing to tackle leakages. The regulator, Ofwat, accused it of not paying enough attention to reducing leakage and under-estimating its legal responsibility for oversight of its leakage operations and the responsibilities of its board. Earlier this year, Thames Water Utilities paid a £4,000,000 fine for environmental violations.

In total, it has paid £23,816,357 in fines for environmental violations since 2010.

United Utilities Water Plc was fined £5,054,410 across 201 environmental offences; while the Kelda Group – which controls Yorkshire Water Services – was fined £4,345,370 for 82 environmental violations. The group also paid £751,818 across two workplace safety or health violations.  

Pennon Group Plc, which controls South West Water and Bristol Water, has paid fines worth £4,330,242 since 2010, including fines totalling £2,488,634 for 162 environmental violations.

Severn Trent Plc, Northumbrian Water, and Anglian Water paid fines totalling £3,728,490, £1,970,500 and £1,830,712 respectively. 

The UK’s water companies paid £57 billion in shareholder dividends between 1991 – two years after former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sold off the water industry – and 2019. 

Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard told Byline Times that “the millions which go to shareholders do nothing to help with cleaning up our rivers and seas”.

“Not one English river is in a healthy condition and there has been zero improvement since 2016,” he said. “The Government is to blame for allowing water companies to vent raw sewage into our rivers and seas seemingly at will. Ministers should urgently U-turn on their decision to block the Environment Bill amendment so that water companies are forced to reduce the amount of sewage they pump into our rivers and seas.”

He also suggested that the Government could learn from the Welsh Government, led by Labour, which has “been able to require sustainable drainage systems to reduce the load on sewage systems and make investing to tackle future challenges a top priority”.

Southern Water Services Ltd and Thames Water Utilities Ltd did not respond to requests for comment.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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