Starmer criticises government’s ‘flimsy’ plan over water pollution in England

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Labour has dismissed government plans that could see water companies in England facing tougher fines and penalties as part of efforts to tackle pollution.

The environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, is expected to set out plans next week that ministers believe will “make polluters pay”, with fines levied on water companies put into a “water restoration fund”.

It comes as the latest Environment Agency figures showed that raw sewage was discharged 301,091 times into England’s rivers in 2022 – an average of 825 spills a day.

Clean water has become a politically charged topic in the run-up to May’s local elections, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats are mounting campaigns against the government’s record on sewage spills.

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Speaking during a campaign visit in Kent on Saturday, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said the plan was a “flimsy” response from ministers.

“What the government has done to our rivers and beaches is turn them into open sewers. I’m here in Kent and it’s a beautiful place, with rivers and beaches that are being polluted and it really, really goes to the heart of how people feel about their environment.

“The government has let them down very, very badly. And this is just a flimsy next step from the government.”

He called for a “strong plan” involving mandatory monitoring and automatic fines to ensure “that those that are responsible are held to account”.

The Liberal Democrats have called on Coffey to resign over the issue.

Coffey said: “I know how important our beautiful rivers, lakes, streams and coastlines are for people and nature – and I couldn’t agree more that more needs to be done to protect them.

“I want to make sure that regulators have the powers and tools to take tough action against companies that are breaking the rules, and to do so more quickly.

“Through the water restoration fund, I will be making sure that money from higher fines and penalties – taken from water company profits, not customers – is channelled directly back into the rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed.

“We know that around 310 miles of rivers each year have been improved through community-led projects – we must build on that success.”

Currently, penalties and fines imposed by Ofwat are returned to the Treasury, but the government’s new plans will see the money handed instead to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday, Charles Watson, the founder and chair of the campaign group River Action, “cautiously welcomed” the news but said “the key is how it will be executed”.

He said: “It may just be that the government has finally woken up to the huge public outrage we’ve seen around what has happened to our rivers … There is now a potential of real teeth.

“It is critical to understand that over the last 10 years, environmental protection has been defunded; it has suffered cutbacks to the tune of about 75% of its budget, so there is very little infrastructure to go out and inspect and monitor and ultimately bring to book polluters.

“We’ve seen this before. In 2018, the government introduced a robust set of regulations to protect rivers from agriculture. The reality is they have never been enforced.

“We want to see a redirection of funds away from rich overseas shareholders”.

As part of the plan, Coffey will publish a six-week consultation on strengthening the Environment Agency’s ability to impose sanctions on water companies without going through the courts.

Defra said the penalties would be quicker and easier to enforce, with the most serious cases still taken through criminal proceedings.

It added that the new fund was intended to help local groups identify the biggest issues and direct investment to where it was most needed, with the money going to support a range of projects, including the restoration of wetlands, the creation of new habitats and adding natural bends to rivers to improve water quality.