Water pollution is currently high up on the news agenda, and rightly so. A 2022 House of Commons Committee report noted that no UK river was free from chemical contamination, and only 14% received a ‘good’ ecological status. In the frame are UK water companies, whose release of treated and untreated sewage contributes to failures in 36% of all English waters. Last year they reportedly discharged raw sewage into English rivers and seas more than 300,000 times.
These alarming figures, and other clear evidence of the state of our waterways, have understandably led campaigners and the public to ask how water companies are being regulated.
For many years regulation of the industry was hard to follow, but now Violation Tracker UK has brought enforcement actions from over 70 different government agencies together in one place. With this freely-available resource it is much easier to track the interactions between water firms and regulators and at a click get the data needed to stay informed on the state of regulation of the sector.
Who are the regulators?
The water industry is regulated by a number of different agencies. Ofwat was set up after the privatisation of the water sector to ensure that water companies in England and Wales cover their statutory functions. Water pollution is monitored in England by the Environment Agency, in Wales it is regulated by Natural Resources Wales. Scotland has the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and in Northern Ireland there is the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. The Drinking Water Inspectorate monitors the quality of drinking water in England and Wales.
Collectively these agencies account for more than 7,000 entries in the Violation Tracker UK database. Of these enforcement actions, around 1,100 have been issued to water companies, with total fines of around £522 million issued.
Insights from the tracker:
How much regulation is taking place?
Last year we analysed data on fines issued by the Environment Agency and found that enforcement action was down six-fold over the last decade. Despite this their regulation of the water industry results in more cases and fines than most UK regulation; Water companies operating in England have received over 800 enforcement actions since 2010.
In Wales, Natural Resources Wales has issued hundreds of warnings to Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water) but only a couple of fines in the last few years. Northern Ireland Water Limited have been fined at least 27 times by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency with total penalties of £319,250 since 2012 and Scottish Water have been fined at least three times by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency since 2019.
Which companies are the worst and why?
Southern Water have been fined over £220 million since 2010, including rebates to customers and a fine totalling £126 million in 2019 after Ofwat found serious failings in its sewage treatment operations. It has been sanctioned eight times by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, 66 times by the Environment Agency and twice by Ofwat.
It is a similar story for Thames Water, which has been fined a total of £166.5 million. The firm has been sanctioned three times by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, 82 times by the Environment Agency and five times by Ofwat.
The data shows that all major UK water companies have engaged in illegal pollution. Recidivism is common, suggesting that fines are not acting as deterrents. The question remains then that given regulations are broken repeatedly over many years by all major UK water companies, what needs to change to improve the state of our waterways?
Water quality campaigners can now monitor and evaluate regulatory enforcement themselves by using Violation Tracker UK, making it easier to take action; whether it be to encourage regulatory compliance amongst water companies or put pressure on regulators and the government to do more to combat the problem.
If you would like more information on the work of UK regulators or the regulatory breaches of any company operating in the UK, you can search for them here on the Violation Tracker UK database. Read our blog and follow us @VT__UK (two underscores) for insights and updates from the data.
Dr Maia Kirby is Outreach Coordinator at Good Jobs First.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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