Today (2 October) the Environment Agency’s annual report on the environmental performance of England’s water and sewerage companies has been published, as covered in the Guardian and the Telegraph.
It shows four out of nine companies are falling short of expected standards – Anglian, Northumbrian and South West Water and Southern Water. Southern Water is the first company to be rated as 1 star (poor) since 2015. Severn Trent Water and Wessex Water, on the other hand, achieved the highest rating.
While the number of serious water quality pollution incidents has plateaued – with a slight improvement to 52 compared to 56 in 2018 – the total number of pollution incidents has increased.
In light of today’s report, both the Environment Secretary George Eustice and the Chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, will be holding meetings with all underperforming companies to discuss improving their poor performance.
Other action being taken includes:
- Pollution Incident Reduction Plans (PIRPs) – The EA has requested all water companies develop, publish and implement specific plans to reduce the pollution incidents by the end of this year, which the EA can scrutinise and monitor, challenging companies to ensure they deliver.
- Penalties and prosecutions – The EA has brought 44 prosecutions against water companies in the last five years, securing fines of £34 million. £7.9 million has also been donated to environmental and wildlife trusts organisations in the same period through enforcement undertakings, a voluntary agreement which includes a donation to environmental charities to restore any harm done. The EA will continue to prosecute water companies which fail to uphold the law or cause serious environmental harm.
- Storm Overflows Taskforce – A new Taskforce was set up between Defra, the EA, Ofwat and Water UK earlier this year which will set out proposals to reduce the frequency and volumes of sewage discharged into our water courses.
Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said:
“We cannot transform water quality in the way we all want if water companies’ environmental performance continues to backslide. Severn Trent and Wessex Water show high performance is possible, and United Utilities were the best performing for serious pollution incidents, but the evidence suggests that the rest of the sector isn’t listening.
“I will be meeting water company chairs in the coming weeks to make it clear that we expect much more. This includes developing, publishing and implementing specific plans by the end of this year to reduce pollution incidents. We will closely follow the delivery of these plans and will apply tough regulation to ensure companies stick by them.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said:
“Water companies have a responsibility to act as custodians of the environment and this report shows that some are failing to take their obligations seriously. That is not good enough.
“I will be meeting those companies who are falling short of our expectations to discuss how we can work together to drive better performance. Despite welcome investment from industry, it is clear the damage inflicted on our environment is still far too great.
“We must all pull together to ensure a green recovery from Coronavirus – and that includes water companies stepping up to the mark and doing better.”
The Environment Agency has been clear it will continue to take whatever action is needed to protect our waters. Emma Howard Boyd wrote an article for the Telegraph to set this out. Her full comment piece is below.
Emma Howard Boyd: 'Saving the planet is indeed a communications challenge'
Last week, Sir David Attenborough became the fastest person to reach a million followers on Instagram. He said: "Saving our planet is now a communications challenge."
He’s right. Many people have got the message about nature and climate change, but how do we reach those who aren’t acting on it? How should we balance the story about what’s going right and what’s going wrong?
Our growing population relies on 9 water companies for drinking water and sewerage services. They provide these in an era of accelerating climate impacts using infrastructure from an era of industrialisation.
Today the Environment Agency published its annual report into the water companies’ environmental performance. It looks at measures like serious pollution incidents.
There’s good news. Severn Trent Water and Wessex Water achieved the highest rating and United Utilities were the best performing for serious pollution incidents. These companies are delivering for customers and improving environmental performance.
But, this year is the worst result since 2011. Four of the nine companies are rated poor or requiring improvement. Over half of serious pollution incidents were due to Anglian Water and Thames Water. On a four star system, South West Water has never got above a 2 star rating. Southern Water only got 1 star.
Last month, England’s water classification results showed just 16 per cent of water bodies achieve Good Ecological Status. I will be meeting water company chairs in the coming weeks to make it clear that we expect much more. This includes developing, publishing and implementing specific Pollution Incident Reduction Plans this year to reduce pollution incidents. We will closely follow the delivery of these plans and will apply tough regulation to ensure companies stick by them.
A good regulatory framework coupled with investment can achieve much. Since 1995, serious water pollution incidents caused by water companies fell by 90 per cent. Treated wastewater going back into rivers is much cleaner. We return 47 billion litres of water a year back to the environment by controlling abstractions. In 2019, 98.3% of bathing waters met or exceeded the minimum standard and more than 70% were rated as excellent.
Annually, the Environment Agency has £62 per km of river to spend on non-charge funded catchment management activities, including environment monitoring and planning, working with catchment partnerships, farming inspections, responding to pollution incidents (one every 45 minutes) and legal work. In five years, we brought 44 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of £34 million. Our regulatory work led to £5 billion of investment from the water companies over five years to improve rivers and groundwater.
The water industry coped well with the pressures of the coronavirus lockdown. It’s the first sector in the UK to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and plans to plant 11 million trees in 5 years. Saving the planet is indeed a communications challenge. The Environment Agency will take tough action and work in partnership with water companies to deliver more for the environment, so we can report better results next year.