Sewage spills in UK waters since 2016 have lasted nine million hours

Raw sewage has been pumped into waters around the UK for more than nine million hours since 2016, figures have revealed.

Geraldine Scott 

Data from the Environment Agency showed that the total duration of monitored spill events had risen from 100,533 hours in 2016 to 2,667,452 last year.

This week pollution warnings have been put in place on 40 beaches across England and Wales after companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in response to heavy rainfall.

The Labour Party, which analysed the data, said it was a “disgraceful practice”. Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said: “Families across Britain are trying to enjoy the summertime.

“While water companies are paying billions in dividends, the Tories have allowed them to cut corners and pump filthy raw sewage on to our playing fields and into our waters.

“Labour will put a stop to this disgraceful practice by ensuring there can be enforcement of unlimited fines, holding water company bosses legally and financially accountable for their negligence, and by toughening up regulations that currently allow the system to be abused.”

Using information from the annual returns of each water company, the Liberal Democrats found that the combined bonuses and salaries per water company boss rose by a fifth over the last year.

This is an average rise in executive pay of nearly £200,000, with the average bonus alone rising by £100,000. The Liberal Democrats called the situation a “national scandal”.

The Environment Agency had previously suggested that bosses should face jail for the worst pollution incidents and said this week that the risk of surface water floods caused by sudden heavy rain “reinforces the need for robust action from water companies to reduce discharges from storm overflows”.

David Black, the boss of regulator Ofwat, said: “I was very clear with company remuneration committees in March that performance-related pay for CEOs should be clearly linked to their performance for customers, the environment and society.

“We are carrying out our own analysis and plan to report on whether we feel companies have clearly made this link. Performance-related pay can’t be a one-way street — if companies are not performing that should be reflected in executive pay.”

Water companies have also come under fire for the increasing number of leaks detected in their systems during a period of widespread hosepipe bans.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pointed to a statement released on its website yesterday, which said the government was “taking action” on sewage discharges, with the present administration being the first to set an expectation on water companies to significantly reduce discharges from storm overflows.

Steve Double, the water minister, said: “We have been clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable and they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority.” He said a plan would be published by September 1.