More on Audit Committee Report on river pollution: threat to cut dirty water chiefs’ bonuses

Coincidentally, Owl has been informed by a correspondent that, over the past couple of weeks, core samples have been taken along the path of the Victorian sewer discharge pipe that runs from the Lime Kiln car park at Budleigh, under the Otter to the Otter Head. 

Renewing this pipe under the estuary to continue to allow untreated sewage discharges into the sea just east of Otter Head, is being done in parallel with the £15M Otter Restoration Project, financed partly by South West Water. Essentially this maintains the status quo.

According to the River Trust data, this pipe discharged 60 times in 2020 for a total of 591 hours.

Threat to cut dirty water chiefs’ bonuses

Ben Webster

Bosses of water companies that regularly breach permits by discharging raw sewage into rivers and the sea should be stripped of their annual bonuses, MPs will recommend in a report today.

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee will call for an urgent review of the system by which water companies self-monitor their sewage works. It warns that a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, slurry and plastic is polluting England’s rivers and putting public health and nature at risk.

The report calls for much tougher regulation, saying successive governments, water companies and regulators “have grown complacent and seem resigned to maintaining pre-Victorian practices of dumping sewage in rivers”.

The report notes the latest Environment Agency data, which shows that all rivers and lakes monitored in England failed tests for chemical pollution and 84 per cent did not meet the government’s target of good ecological status.

It says poor river water quality is the result of chronic underinvestment by water companies and multiple failures in monitoring, governance and enforcement. “Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers regularly, often breaching the terms of permits that only allow this in exceptional circumstances,” the report adds.

It says most swimmers and other river users cannot find out when it is safe to use them because of a lack of information about sewage discharges.

The revelation in last year’s prosecution of Southern Water that billions of litres of sewage were deliberately dumped into the sea over several years raised “obvious and urgent questions” about the system of self-monitoring.

The committee accuses Ofwat, the regulator, of focusing on keeping bills down rather than ensuring adequate investment. The MPs accuse Liv Garfield, the chief executive of Severn Trent, who was paid £2.8 million in 2020, including £1.9 million in bonuses, of making a “disingenuous” claim in evidence to the committee that storm overflow discharges were “pretty much already rainwater”.

The report says discharges can be highly contaminated with raw sewage and “to claim otherwise shows a disregard for the public’s concern about water quality in rivers”. The report demands “far more assertive regulation and enforcement from Ofwat and the Environment Agency to restore our rivers to their natural glory”.

It calls on Ofwat to examine its powers “with a view to limiting the awards of significant annual bonuses to water company senior executives in the event of major or persistent breaches in permit conditions”.

Other recommendations include:

• The government should set “challenging improvement targets and timetables” for reducing the impact of sewage discharges.

• Ofwat should prioritise long-term investment in wastewater when setting the prices water companies can charge.

• The industry should provide real-time, easily accessible information on sewage discharges.

• At least one popular stretch of river should be designated for bathing in each water company area by 2025 at the latest.

• A review of sentencing guidelines for water pollution offences to ensure that companies act.

• A ban on wet wipes containing plastic because they cause “fatbergs as big as blue whales” that block sewers.

Severn Trent said it believed an average of about 90 per cent of the discharge from its overflows was rainwater. Water UK, which represents water companies, said: “Water companies want to invest more and are pushing the government to encourage the economic regulator, Ofwat, to enable this increased spending over the next decade.”

The Environment Agency said improvements to rivers had “flatlined over the last ten years” and that water companies, regulators and farmers must do more to protect them.

Christine Colvin, of The Rivers Trust, said the report was a “devasting indictment on the status quo”.