It’s crazy to fine polluters £250m, says Environment Agency chief

“What he seems to have missed entirely is the fact that those penalties are not actually usable. And it seemed wacky to say that he would make the penalties weaker.” Ash Smith, Windrush Against Sewage Pollution.

Alan Lovell, new Chair Environment Agency, has previously served as the chairman of Interserve Group, a construction company, a director at a distributor of construction materials and chairman of a company selling double-glazed windows….He promised to make the agency a “little more commercial”, which he said would free up money to spend. 

Difficult to see the relevance of this CV, no background in environmental regulation. – Owl

PS Remember the days when John Varley, Clinton Devon Estates, was on both the Environment Agency and Natural England boards? He is now off both.

Adam Vaughan, Environment Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

The Environment Agency’s new chairman has criticised plans to punish water companies found to have spilled sewage by increasing penalties to £250 million.

Alan Lovell derided the number, put forward by the previous environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, in October, as “crazy”, “massive” and “way in excess of what’s needed”.

Lovell, who started at the regulator last September, said that he was instead negotiating with the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs on “a sensible number” for maximum penalties.

His comments are the first indication that the government could scrap the Liz Truss-era policy of raising the existing £250,000 cap on penalties one thousand-fold.

In his first major public speech, Lovell said that while the agency had secured £102.5 million of fines for water companies in 2021, establishing wins through the courts took years and was too slow.

Instead, he said he wanted to move towards using civil sanctions, known as variable monetary penalties. The agency can impose these itself and they require a lower burden of proof than in a criminal case.

But Lovell said that the current £250,000 cap was “unfortunately not enough to make a difference to a water company’s behaviour”. As well as raising the limit, he said he wanted to speed up the process of imposing the penalties. To date, the Environment Agency has issued no variable monetary penalties despite having had the power to do so since 2010.

Ash Smith, of the Oxfordshire-based campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, said: “What he seems to have missed entirely is the fact that those penalties are not actually usable. And it seemed wacky to say that he would make the penalties weaker.”

Speaking at a school in Andover on Monday, Lovell said that while water companies had made a “lot of mistakes” they were “trying pretty hard” to improve water quality. Water companies have been under fire in recent months over incidents such as weeks-long sewage spills in the Thames Valley.

Lovell said it had been a “terrible mistake” by Ofwat, the water industry regulator, to allow companies to pay dividends after the sector was privatised in 1989. While investment had increased initially, he said most of the period since had seen “chronic under-investment” by the nine main water companies.

Lovell said that if water firms were breaking the law and not trying to comply with it, he agreed with his predecessor, Emma Howard Boyd, who said last year that executives should be jailed over serious pollution incidents. However, Lovell said: “My personal experience is that they [water executives] have got this message.”

Lovell has previously served as the chairman of Interserve Group, a construction company, a director at a distributor of construction materials and chairman of a company selling double-glazed windows. While he has been chairman of the Consumer Council for Water, he does not have a background in environmental regulation. He promised to make the agency a “little more commercial”, which he said would free up money to spend.

The agency had received a welcome boost in the past year to its annual budget of almost £2 billion, he said. But it was still not being funded in a “long-term sustainable way” and he would take “full advantage” of the general election and public concern over pollution to lobby for more money.

Lovell made clear that about 100,000 farms in England were also in his sights, and he was hoping to curb pollution washing off their land into rivers. He said the agency, which The Times recently revealed inspected only 2 per cent of farms a year, was stepping up action and inspections against farmers. But he said: “They are hard to reach, there are so many,” and admitted that the agency was still “not fully staffed up to do it”.

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