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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Unlimited financial penalties for environmental offences will mean “polluters always pay.”

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River Irwell

There has been national and regional coverage on our proactive announcement about changes to Variable Monetary Penalties (VMPs). These are civil sanctions issued by the Environment Agency to companies and individuals who breach their permits and pollute the environment.

The previous £250,000 cap on the penalties has been scrapped and the range of offences they cover has been expanded. Firms now face unlimited financial penalties for a breach with the move designed to offer a more rapid form of punishment, compared to prosecution. The EA expects to now deliver more penalties to hold polluters, including water companies, to account.

The expanded range of offences that can be covered with a VMP now include:

  • Breach of permit conditions from sites that discharge into rivers and seas - for example from sewage treatment works and permitted storm overflows;
  • Illegal discharges to water where there is no permit, such as in the event of agricultural pollution from slurry stores;
  • Illegal waste offences, such as from illegal scrapyards or unpermitted waste management facilities;
  • Permit breaches from manufacturing industries and power stations which contribute to air pollution.

The changes, which follow a consultation in Spring 2023, affect all firms that have environmental permits, including water and waste companies as well as the agricultural sector and process industries. Penalties issued will be proportionate to the size of the company and the nature of the offence, in line with Sentencing Council guidelines. The most serious breaches of the law will continue to be subject to criminal proceedings.

The funds raised from water company penalties will be reinvested in a new Water Restoration Fund, designed to provide direct local investment to improve our rivers, lakes and streams.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said:

Polluters should be in no doubt that if they harm our precious habitats and waterways they will pay.

By lifting the cap on these sanctions, we are simultaneously toughening our enforcement tools and expanding where regulators can use them. These changes will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits and cause pollution.

Through the launch of the Water Restoration Fund, the money raised from penalties imposed on water companies will go towards restoring and protecting our waters. This is part of the increased investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement we are delivering through our Plan for Water.

Environment Agency Executive Director John Leyland said:

These new powers will allow us to deliver more penalties and help us to continue to hold polluters, including water companies, to account.

The threat of uncapped financial penalties should boost compliance with environmental laws – helping us provide stronger protection to the environment, communities and nature.

As well as changes to the VMP system, the Government has recently taken other measures to hold polluters accountable for environmental damage. We have given Ofwat increased powers to ensure water company dividends are linked to environmental performance while the regulator has also tightened the rules on bonus payments. For 2022-23, no water company bosses in England are paying a CEO bonus out of customer money.

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  1. Comment by John W. Baxter posted on

    I recently saw a Panorama documentary which astounded me as to how flexible enforcement bodies, water companies and the law were re: pollution issues.
    I kept hearing echoes from previous government and its bodies haunting me throughout with “the polluter will pay”,and thinking, yes , we all remember that seemingly meaningless phrase when referring to our British water companies and their performance on pollution of our water catchments and the seas that surround us.
    One can only hope as I do that pristine streams like Costa Beck no longer have to be subjected to poor management of discharges from waste water treatment works , and that the bodies entrusted with the responsibility, and the technology available today do deliver acceptable results can proceed to clean up the murky damage of the past left in the wake of negligence to the environment around us.

  2. Comment by Anthony Johnson posted on

    only if you have an expensive barrister to fight your case otherwise they block or don't answer your call or look into your problem.

  3. Comment by MICHAEL LANCASTER posted on

    This is all very well but if the EA does not investigate most of the offences committed, as raised by the Panorama program, then what is the point. What needs to be looked at is making the EA a more effective tool in the Government's arsenal in punishing offending water companies. Again quoting the Panorama program this seems to be a problem with the management in the EA, which needs a massive overhaul. We need people committed to making sure water companies adhere to the rules and when they offend that they pay. Perhaps we should also think that when a water company fails 3 times they are struck off and the government takes over. These essential services should never have been handed over to private enterprise. Just as people would be horrified at the NHS falling into private hands so we should be horrified that services such as power and water are in the hands of people whose sole objective is making money and not the best interests of the environment or the people.