The Environment Agency needs some serious teeth before it’s too late for our rivers

With thanks to Surfers Against Sewage

“In 2021, the environmental performance of England’s nine water and sewerage companies was the worst we have seen for years. Measured against our four-star rating, most of them went the wrong way: down. Four companies (Anglian, Thames, Wessex, Yorkshire Water) were rated only 2 stars, which means they require significant improvement. Two (Southern and South-West Water) fell to 1 star, the bottom of our star ratings, meaning their performance was terrible across the board.”


These are the opening words of the Environment Agency’s report, published on 14 July 2022, on the environmental performance of England’s water and sewerage companies.

Chair of the Environment Agency (EA) Emma Howard Boyd, is patently angry, and rightly so. The fury continues:

“The sector’s performance on pollution was shocking, much worse than previous years. Serious pollution incidents increased to 62, the highest total since 2013. There were 8 of the most serious (category 1) incidents, compared with 3 in 2020 and most companies, 7 of the 9, were responsible for an increase in serious incidents compared to 2020.

“Company directors let this occur and it is simply unacceptable. Over the years the public have seen water company executives and investors rewarded handsomely while the environment pays the price. The water companies are behaving like this for a simple reason: because they can. We intend to make it too painful for them to continue as they are.

“Since 2015 the Environment Agency’s prosecutions against water companies have secured fines of over £138 million. We are increasing inspections of sewage treatment works; insisting that the companies put monitors on all their storm overflows, both on the network and at sewage treatment works, and make the data public; and we have also begun the country’s largest ever investigation into environmental crime, involving all the companies, where we are looking at whether they have knowingly and deliberately broken the law in relation to the treatment and discharge of sewage.

“But this is not enough. The water companies will only stop behaving like this if they are forced to. The amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited, but fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a Chief Executive’s salary. We need courts to impose much higher fines for serious and deliberate pollution incidents. The threat of significant impending financial penalties has an impact. Investors should no longer see England’s water monopolies as a one-way bet.

“Repeat offenders can now expect criminal prosecutions for less serious environmental incidents where once the Environment Agency would have used civil powers. We would like to see prison sentences for Chief Executives and Board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents. We would also like to see company directors being struck off so they cannot simply delete illegal environmental damage from their CV and move on to their next role.”

How likely is it that a new government will arm the EA appropriately?

With their obsession with shrinking the state, deregulation and free markets, how likely is it that these Conservatives will reverse the cuts to EA staffing so that the policing of our waterways is not left to Feargal Sharkey and local campaigners? How likely is it that this government will strengthen the law and fund the courts to deal with breaches, when so many MPs happily voted to allow the pollution to continue unchecked?

And how will conflicts of interest like this be resolved? How will that righteous anger translate into punitive action, when the profit motive runs up against ethics and the duty of care?

We take clean drinking water for granted.

But that’s not all. A lot of us want to be able to go ‘wild swimming’, to see flora and fauna thrive, biodiversity preserved and enhanced. We want to be able to walk beside our rivers and breathe clean air, not the stench of sewage. We don’t want to see a disgusting soup of faeces and tampons spewing out onto our beaches. We don’t want to be the dirty man of Europe once again.

So what can we do?

  • Lobby our MPs to give the EA the resources it needs.
  • Campaign for the nationalisation of the water companies.
  • Join a local river protection group and help take care of our local river.
  • Join Ocean Rebellion or Surfers Against Sewage, because what gets chucked in the rivers ends up in the sea. 

Finally, here’s local campaigner Mike Puleston in Totnes, with a message for the government: