Britain’s privatised water and sewage companies will face increased penalties from 2025 for using faulty or broken equipment to measure pollution from storm overflow pipes, the industry regulator said on Tuesday.
Ofwat, the financial watchdog for the industry, also said it would set binding targets for the first time to force water companies to reduce their sewage spills from storm overflow pipes, which release a mix of rain water and sewage into public waterways.
Currently Ofwat can financially penalise companies for spills from storm overflow pipes but the new financial penalties will apply to all discharges that breach targets.
The measures come as water companies and regulators try to address public pressure after being accused of paying high dividends and pay packages while presiding over serious pollution failures.
On Tuesday, the chief executives of Yorkshire Water, Thames Water and South West Water all agreed to waive their bonuses this year following widespread criticism of utilities’ failure to curb sewage dumping and invest in critical infrastructure.
Water companies have been responsible for monitoring their pollution discharges since 2009. However, since 2015 they have been required to install event duration monitors on overflow pipes, which record the frequency and timespan of spills.
Around 90 per cent of storm overflow pipes have EDMs installed with the remainder due by the end of this year.
However, data from the Environment Agency, the pollution watchdog, last year showed many monitors were not working. Ofwat said on Tuesday that around one in six devices worked less than 90 per cent of the time in 2022.
In cases when monitors are not working, Ofwat said it would assume spills from the site are twice as bad as the current average and penalise companies accordingly.
The proposals are out for consultation and would come into effect in 2025 along with other measures aimed at improving the performance of water groups.
Nick Measham, chief executive of campaign group WildFish, welcomed the measures as a “step in the right direction” but questioned why they had taken more than 30 years to deliver since the privatisation of the water industry in 1989. “All these announcements are great but they are worthless unless the government and the regulators enforce existing legislation,” he added.
Aileen Armstrong, senior director at Ofwat, said: “Companies need to reduce the use of storm overflows. We want to introduce measures to hold them to account for this and to ensure companies are effectively monitoring their use of storm overflows.
“We will continue to use all the powers we have to drive companies to get to grips with this issue.”
Water UK, which represents the water industry, said: “By the end of 2023 every single storm overflow in England will be monitored.
“By this time next year, every water company will make this data available online so that the nation’s swimmers, canoeists, tourists and anglers will all be able to see exactly what’s happening, as it’s happening, across every river and beach.”