Politics

Activists welcome Labour crackdown on water bosses over illegal sewage dumps – but warn it's not enough

Activists have welcomed Labour's plan to put sewage spillers 'in the dock' – but warned that it is “not enough” to fix water pollution.

Sewage is only supposed to be discharged following extreme weather. Image: Jeff Buck (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Activists have welcomed Labour’s plan to put illegal sewage spillers “in the dock” – but warned that it is “not enough” to fix water pollution.

Thousands of Brits became ill after swimming in polluted water in 2023, after water firms pumped raw sewage into rivers and the sea nearly 400,000 times.

As public anger mounts, Labour’s shadow environment secretary Steve Reed has called for water bosses who preside over illegal raw sewage dumps to face personal criminal sanctions.

“The reason I want to begin personal criminal liability is because I think they should [go to court],” Reed told the i.

But the problem will require a far more broad-reaching solution, activists have urged.

“It’s great that Labour are focusing on this. And of course, any leader of a business that has acted outside the law should be subject to the full sanction of the law,” said Charles Watson, founder and chair of River Action UK.

“But what we really want to hear from Labour is a commitment that they will fund and re-empower the regulatory bodies that police the industry as a whole, and not just focus on individuals. Ultimately, it’s going to be about the money.”

In the 10 years to 2022, the Conservatives slashed funding for the Environmental Agency – one of the bodies in charge of regulating the water industry – by 56%.

In Last November’s Autumn Statement, the government cut funding for the Department of Environment; its budget allocation fell from £4.7bn in 2022/2023 to £4.1bn in 2024/2025. The EA’s budget is meted out from this total.

If it takes power in this year’s general election, Labour will be responsible for allocating departmental budgets. It has pledged to fund water improvements as part of its £28bn annual green investment promise.

However, speculation is mounting that the commitment is on the chopping block after it was excluded from a campaigning brief last week. Labour has denied that the pledge is being dropped.

Surfers against Sewage urged political parties to prioritise funding for regulators.

“We welcome polices that seek to hold those responsible to account and to stop water companies putting profit over people and planet in the future. But we need more than just policies and announcements,” said Henry Swithinbank, SAS policy manager.

“We need regulators empowered with  the funds and resources to do their job of enforcing these polices and legislation. Without that the stench of pollution will continue.”

Why is the UK’s sewage pollution so bad?

Britain relies on plumbing infrastructure that was constructed in the 19th century. Faced with the pressure of a growing population, water companies are allowed to release sewage overflow after heavy rains.

But companies have also been known for ‘dry spills’ – illegal discharges that occur when no heavy rain has fallen. In 2021, Southern Water was fined a record £90m for disallowed discharges.

But fines haven’t prevented sewage from being pumped into rivers, lakes and seas. In the year up to October 2023, 1,924 people reported getting ill after entering the water across the UK. Some 60% of these reports came after dips in “excellent”-rated bathing waters.

Meanwhile, water bosses have awarded themselves more than £25m in bonuses and incentives over the past four years, Labour analysis shows. In addition to its personal criminal liability plan, the party has pledged to ban polluting companies from paying bosses bonuses.

For their part, the Conservatives have promised to “get tough on polluters.” The government insists that its plan for water will bring £1.6bn investment into sewage infrastructure and tighten enforcement by permitting Ofwat and the EA to levy unlimited fines.

But these bodies must be adequately funded if the rules are to be implemented, non-profit Wild Justice warned.

“Laws are no use unless they are enforced,” said co-founder Mark Avery.

“Whether it be killing birds of prey, discharging pollution into watercourses or fox hunting the laws must not just exist but they must be enforced. If Labour will move on the generic problem of feeble law enforcement that is to be welcomed and people and wildlife will benefit.”

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