Watchdog was missing in action, says nature charity

A charity has accused the Environment Agency of being “missing in action” at the height of the pandemic after figures revealed inspections of companies’ monitoring at sewage treatment plants dramatically.

Each year the regulator inspects the self-monitoring that water companies undertake for discharges into rivers from the 6,327 wastewater treatment works across England and Wales to ensure the data withstands scrutiny. Between 2015 and 2019 there was an average of 475 inspections a year.

However, statistics released under freedom of information rules show inspections more than halved in 2020, to 223, before increasing last year to 334. The lack of oversight coincided with a period of water pollution incidents in English rivers that led the Environment Agency to threaten water bosses with jail sentences.

Christine Colvin, from The Rivers Trust, said: “Self-monitoring by the water companies can only work in a highly transparent and accountable environment. This was missing in action during 2020 and 2021 with the low level of visits.

“It’s now clear that complacency cannot continue and the public want urgent action to stop sewage pollution.”

Political pressure on water companies to tackle sewage spills is intensifying. Last week Ranil Jayawardena, the environment secretary, vowed to increase maximum fines from £250,000 to £250 million.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “Site inspections of wastewater treatment works ran at a reduced rate during the pandemic in line with government advice to minimise the risk to staff, water company personnel and the public. This does not mean that regulation decreased.”

However, sources said that inspections could have been prioritised. One insider at the regulator said: “The Covid excuse is nonsense as both agency and water companies were key workers, unless they class these inspections as very low priority. Also, inspections can always be made up over a year, and the agency chose not to.”

Most Covid-related restrictions were relaxed in spring 2021. In another sign that suggests the drop could have been avoided if given greater priority, The Times understands there were several attempts to make checks remotely.

One source at the regulator said resourcing was the problem. “The inspections side has been pared back to the bone. The reason [for the fall] was a reduction in resources to the agency.”

Colvin said: “We need strong regulation. We need a regulator equipped to do the job, and site visits are an essential component of that work.”

Philip Dunne, Tory chairman of the environmental audit committee, which published a damning report on the state of England’s rivers in January, said: “It is clear reliance on self-monitoring has been part of the problem of sewage discharges in recent years. It is therefore more important than ever that audits and inspections carried out by the Environment Agency are robust.”

• Thousands of Environment Agency staff are to be balloted on a potential strike over pay, the Unison union said. This year workers voted to reject an offer of 2 per cent plus an additional £345.