Water companies could be hit with “unlimited fines” for polluting the environment under a new plan unveiled by the UK government today.
The Plan for Water includes a proposal to remove a cap on the amount the Environment Agency (EA) can secure in penalties from polluting water companies, enabling the issue of unlimited fines, subject to a consultation.
Money raised from fines would be reinvested into a new Water Restoration Fund, which will aim to deliver “on-the-ground improvements” to water quality and support local groups and community-led schemes that protect waterways.
Today’s plan also includes a commitment to consult on banning wet wipes containing plastic, and to develop new proposals to restrict the use of ‘forever chemicals’ (PFAS) found in rivers and seas.
Furthermore, it aims to ensure water companies speed up their infrastructure upgrades – bringing forward £1.6bn of work to start between now and 2025, including £1.1bn on storm overflow improvements.
This comes after the EA recently revealed that there have been an average of 825 sewage spills per day into England's waterways over the last year.
Reacting to the plan, IEMA’s Deputy CEO, Martin Baxter, said: “Water is essential for human life and the resilience of our fragile ecosystems. Microplastics and sewage are polluting our coasts and rivers, often with devastating consequences.
“The Secretary of State has urged water companies to clean up their act; we hope there will be an honest conversation about the ambition and scale of delivery needed for clean rivers and seas, and an adequate supply of drinking water as climate change affects our weather systems.”
Today’s announcement follows the publication of the Environmental Improvement Plan in January – the government’s five-year delivery plan to protect and restore nature – which includes targets on water.
The government will also be launching a new National Policy Statement on water resources so that key water supply infrastructure – such as reservoirs and water transfer schemes – can be built more quickly.
In addition, it will aim to reduce water demand by encouraging water companies to rapidly increase smart meter installations for customers, and will be updating the memorandum of understanding between the EA and Ofwat for enhanced regulatory oversight of water companies.
Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey said: “Our rare chalk streams and world-famous coastlines, lakes and rivers are hugely important to local communities and to nature.
“I completely understand the concerns that people have about the health and resilience of our waters, which is why I am setting out this plan for a truly national effort to protect and improve them.
“That includes higher penalties taken from water company profits which will be channelled back into the rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed.
“This is not straightforward, but I take this issue extremely seriously and things need to change. That’s why we have developed this plan and we are committed to delivering the progress that people want to see.”
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