Water company bosses who commit criminal acts of water pollution will be banned from receiving bonuses as part of efforts to clean up the country’s waterways.
In a victory for the Times Clean It Up campaign, which marks its one-year anniversary this week, the government will stop water managers from receiving payments if companies fail.
Campaigners, as well as Labor and the Liberal Democrats, have previously called for the measure, amid public outrage against executives who have benefited from £26 million in bonuses since 2019 despite damage to rivers.
The Times reported last month that Steve Barclay, the environment secretary, was about to block bonuses for company leaders who regularly break laws protecting rivers and seas. Now he’s embracing politics, starting with bonuses in the 2024-25 financial year.
Several water bosses voluntarily gave up their bonuses last year amid outrage over sewage spills, including the bosses of Southern Water and Thames Water.
However, five bosses received their bonuses. They included Anglian Water’s Peter Simpson, who received a bonus of £302,033 in 2022-23, even though his company’s environmental performance was rated two stars out of four.
In July 2021, Southern Water was fined £90 million after being prosecuted for deliberately pumping raw sewage into the sea, but its chief executive, Ian McAulay, still received a bonus of more than £500,000.
Sewage is dumped into a stream in South Earlswood, Surrey, close to a treatment plant run by Thames Water
Ofwat, the industry regulator, will consult on what should trigger a bonus ban. This could include being successfully prosecuted for the two most serious categories of pollution, such as significant contamination of a bathing area. The measure would apply to top executives and all members of the executive board.
“No one should profit from illegal behavior and it’s time water company bosses took responsibility for it,” Barclay said.
The move comes as The Times reveals that water companies have dumped large quantities of raw sewage in dozens of areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Analysis shows that 7% of the total number of sewage spill hours in England and Wales – or more than 170,000 hours – occurred in protected green spaces during 2022.
The Times’ award-winning Clean It Up campaign marks its one-year anniversary this week.
It was launched last year to pressure the government and polluters to clean up rivers, lakes and beaches.
However, progress on new bathing waters has been slow; real-time sewer maps have not materialized; and farmers received few additional incentives to reduce pollution.
The campaign has seen a series of successes, from promises to end self-monitoring by water companies, unlimited fines for polluters and the water sector promising £96 billion in investment.
There are 46 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) in the UK, considered “beautiful landscapes” that are so distinctive and beautiful that it is “in the nation’s interests to protect them”.
However, analysis by The Times revealed that there were 22,938 individual releases of raw sewage into protected areas in England and Wales in 2022, lasting 170,286 hours.
If these hours were distributed evenly among the 46 AONBs, this would equate to five months of continuous raw sewage release per area in a single year.
Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, an alliance of green groups that includes the RSPB and the National Trust, said the discharges were completely unacceptable. “It is an insult to the millions of people who love these landscapes and an attack on wildlife,” he said.
The hardest hit Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was High Weald, in Sussex, Surrey and Kent, which experienced 26,802 hours of flashovers due to storm flooding in one year. Wastewater management in the area, which is home to almost 4,000 species of plants and animals, is handled by Southern Water.
“We need thriving ecosystems. If we can’t achieve this in an AONB, where can we? It’s embarrassing that in the 21st century we can’t clean up our poo,” said Hilary Newport, director of the Kent branch of the charity Campaign to Protect Rural England.
The Tamar Valley suffered the second longest period of sewage spills. Overlapping Devon and Cornwall, the area is home to the rivers Tamar, Tavy and Lynher, and local people have complained that the area’s sewage treatment plants do not have sufficient capacity. In 2022, South West Water discharged raw sewage for 23,418 hours. Plymouth, at the mouth of the Tamar, has one of the largest groups of wild swimmers in the country.
“Rivers are the arteries of our planet. By polluting them, we not only kill all life in them, but also in our coastal waters as the rivers end up flowing into the oceans,” said Lewis Pugh, a swimmer and UN patron of the oceans who lives near the Tamar in Devon.
Campaigners tried to designate a bathing water to help swimmers at the Tamar in the village of Calstock, Cornwall, but their proposal was rejected by the government last year. Clean It Up calls for the creation of much more bathing water to encourage river cleaning.
The River Tavy in the Tamar Valley, which has been badly affected by sewage leaks
Every year, the Environment and Natural Resources Agency for Wales publishes the locations of all sewage spills caused by storm overflows managed by wastewater companies across England and Wales.
James Richardson, who created the Top of the Poops website, overlaid this data onto the protected AONBs. The areas were renamed “national landscapes” in 2022, in an attempt to show that they are as important as national parks. They cover around 14% of the land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The top 20 AONBs with the oldest spills cover some of the country’s most iconic landscapes, from the Cotswolds and Mendip Hills to the moors of the North Pennines. The worst-hit list also included the port of Chichester and the half of the Isle of Wight that had been designated AONB.
Water companies have repeatedly stated that they are prioritizing reducing sewage deposits in the most vital habitats over less sensitive locations. One of the consequences of raw sewage spills is excessive levels of nutrient pollution, which can lead to algal blooms that suffocate fish and other freshwater life. They can also pose a risk to dogs and swimmers.
Sarah Bentley, chief executive of Thames Water, chose to forgo her bonus last year
Southern Water accounted for the longest duration of spills in AONBs, at 51,026 hours in 2022, followed by South West Water and Wessex Water. Anglian Water had the fewest spills in AONBs. The ranking of the worst water companies is, in part, a result of the fact that parts of the country have the most protected areas.
The numbers were similar in 2021, although total spill hours in protected areas decreased because 2022 was a very low year in terms of precipitation. The situation will probably be worse in 2023 due to rainier weather.
The Tamar at Millbrook in Cornwall
There were around 375,000 sewage spills in England and Wales last year, a small fall on the previous year. “We share our communities’ passion for the environment and work closely with the Environment Agency,” said Nick Mills, head of Southern Water’s clean rivers and seas taskforce.
John Halsall, operations director at South West Water, said: “The devil is in the detail with these figures – our region’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, unsurprisingly, cover catchments and more populated coastal areas, as opposed to unpopulated moorland. ”.
A Wessex Water spokesperson said: “National landscapes make up around 30 per cent of Wessex Water’s sewerage area and are typically places with high groundwater, where rainwater is trapped in rocks and soil for days or months before discharges occur.”
How monitoring works
At the end of last year, 100 percent of storm surges were equipped with “event duration monitoring” devices managed by water companies. These devices use water level sensors to detect the start and end times of untreated sewage releases from overflows and communicate readings via data networks. As the name suggests, they measure the duration of spills, but not the volume of sewage.
There are around 15,000 storms in England and around 2,000 in Wales. Businesses are allowed to release sewage through storm overflows during heavy rains when sewer capacity is overwhelmed, to prevent sewage from backing up into homes and businesses.
The Times demands faster action to improve the country’s waterways. Find out more about the Clean Campaign.