Plan for Water: Defra touts unlimited fines for polluting water companies
The UK Government has confirmed plans for water companies found to be polluting the environment to face “unlimited” fines, with funds raised set to be reinvested in a new water restoration fund.
The measures form part of a new Plan for Water from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), published today (4 April).
As had been agreed to by water regulator Ofwat earlier this week, the Plan includes a requirement for water companies to accelerate the delivery of key projects intended to improve water quality, boost water security and/or conserve and restore nature. A total of £1.6bn worth of work has been brought forward; shovels will now need to be in the ground by April 2025 and projects completed by 2030.
A total of 31 projects will be accelerated due to this change. These include £1.1bn of projects to reduce storm overflows and £160m of projects to reduce nutrient pollution resulting from sectors including agriculture and construction.
Ofwat is also assessing a further 37 smaller schemes, collectively costed at £376m, for potential acceleration.
The nutrient pollution funding from private water companies is in addition to more than £25m of new public funding from Defra aimed at improving water management on farms. The Department is doubling its Slurry Infrastructure Grant to £34m. The Grant helps farmers to improve slurry storage and use organic nutrients on farms more sparingly and responsibly. A new national action plan on sustainable pesticide use will be published later this year.
Defra is also opening a second round of the Water Management Grant, helping farmers to invest in on-farm reservoirs and irrigation equipment. The Department has set a target to increase the amount of water stored by the agriculture and horticulture sectors by 66% by 2050, to help protect food production even in times of drought.
The plan will have implications for businesses in all sectors. A demand reduction target for non-domestic consumption has been set for the first time at 9% by 2038 and 15% by 2050. This, the plan stated, will deliver half of the four billion liters/day gap in supply and demand by 2050.
Water sector enforcement
Another headline inclusion in the new Plan are changes to the enforcement of regulations on pollution and water wastage imposed on the water sector.
Through the Environment Agency, the Government is consulting on proposals to remove the cap on the level of fines which can be imposed on water companies. Such a move should disincentivize the discharge of raw sewage, particularly in or near bathing waters and particularly in dry weather. Defra is supporting the removal of the cap and the introduction of unlimited fines.
The Environment Agency this year revealed that water companies sent storm overflows into English rivers and seas for more than 1.75 million hours in 2022.
Funds raised through fines, Defra has stated, will be placed into a new Water Restoration Fund. The Fund will support catchment-level projects to conserve, restore and create wildlife habitats that also improve water management. In the coming months, Defra will publish new long-term catchment action plans in collaboration with NGOs, local authorities and local groups.
As well as increasing fines for water companies, Defra has increased requirements on the sector to reduce chemical use in wastewater treatment and to monitor at least 90% of storm overflows. It is additionally increasing permit charges for the sector and will funnel additional funds raised into more frequent inspections.
Environment Agency chair Alan Lovell welcomed these changes. He said: “Nature must be supported and the polluter must pay. These new measures will help us hold the water industry and others to account.”
The moves detailed in the plan on water industry enforcement follow on from Ofwat’s measures, introduced earlier this year, to ensure that water company executives cannot take home their full bonus allocations if their company is not performing as expected in regards to managing pollution.
Another key measure in the plan is a promise from Defra to consult on banning the sale of wet wipes containing plastics. The consultation is not yet live and Defra has not yet stipulated a timeframe for the implementation of the ban.
The BBC estimates that some 11 billion wet wipes are sold in the UK every year, with 90% of wipes on the market containing some form of plastic. Several retailers have either already banned, or are working to ban, plastic-based wet wipes on a voluntary basis, including Boots, which confirmed a fully plastic-free array of wipes in February.
Before the ban comes into place, Defra will work with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to discourage companies from labelling wet wipes as ‘flushable’.
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With such stringent controls having to be brought into operation, at public expense, is it not a little surprising that an industry vital to the nation is not nationalised?