Unlimited fines for water companies begin, but ‘will this help?’

A previous cap of £250,000 has been scrapped and the number of offences covered by laws expanded.

brown and green trees beside river under blue sky during daytime

The UK Environment Agency now has increased powers to hold water companies to account for pollution events and other activities which are detrimental to nature. 

Fines for negligence and ecological damage can now run up to any amount, a significant change from the previous limit of £250,000. In addition, a number of acts have been added to those that result in penalties. Variable Monetary Penalties can now be imposed for breach of permit conditions from sites that discharge into rivers and seas (for example, sewage treatment works or permitted storm overflows), illegal discharges of water without permit, and illegal waste offences (including scrapyards and illicit waste management operations).

‘Polluters should be in no doubt that if they harm our precious habitats and waterways they will pay,’ said Environment Secretary Steve Barclay. ‘By lifting the cap on these sanctions, we are simultaneously toughening our enforcement tools and expanding where regulators can use them. These changes will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits and cause pollution.’

Environment Agency Director John Leyland added that new powers will mean more penalties and a greater ability to hold companies to account. He said: ‘The threat of uncapped financial penalties should boost compliance with environmental laws – helping us provide stronger protection to the environment, communities and nature.’ 

However, the prevalence of significant pollution events, and a failure to successfully control the sector by regulator Ofwat, along with cutbacks at the Environment Agency itself, means many remain sceptical about the impact of increased fines. Richard Reichman, a partner and regulatory specialist at BCL Solicitors, commented: ‘While many will welcome the Environment Agency being granted the power to directly issue unlimited fines, the question is, will this help? The Chair of the Environment Agency thought the previous plan to increase the limit from £250k to £250m was excessive.

‘The criminal courts already have unlimited sentencing powers for environmental offences. The use of civil penalties is intended to make enforcement action quicker, simpler, and more cost-effective for the Environment Agency, but it is likely that it will continue to prosecute the most serious breaches, particularly having expressed a desire to see prison sentences,’ he continued. ‘The Environment Agency’s new powers are part of a wider trend of regulators gaining DIY fining powers, avoiding the need to take cases to the criminal courts. This is against the background of a strained justice system and reduced regulators’ budgets.
‘Whilst its fining powers have become unlimited, its funding and resources are not.’

More on water pollution:

Suppliers ‘downgrade’ water pollution events with Environment Agency approval

What Ofwat penalties for failing UK water suppliers tell us

Giving rivers and communities a voice: Environmental Law Foundation

Image: Jeffrey Eisen



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