Top executives of England’s water companies should face jail when serious incidents of pollution occur, the Environment Agency said on Thursday.
The call came after the regulator’s latest annual assessment showed a decline in performance on pollution for most of England’s water and sewage companies.
The agency reported 62 “serious pollution incidents” last year, up from 44 the year before as performance on pollution fell to the lowest level since 2013.
This year Southern Water and South West Water were given the lowest rating of one star, while four companies – Anglian, Thames, Wessex and Yorkshire Water – got only two stars – meaning they require significant improvement.
Only three – Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities – received the highest rating of four stars.
As well as calling for jail time for chief executives and board members “whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents”, the Environment Agency wants the courts to impose much higher fines. It noted that they often amounted to less than a chief executive’s salary.
“It’s appalling that water companies’ performance on pollution has hit a new low,” said Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency.
“Company directors let this happen. We plan to make it too painful for them to continue like this.”
The EA rates water companies taking into account the number and severity of pollution incidents, the self-reporting of these incidents and the use and disposal methods of sewage sludge, amongst other things.
In response to the assessment, industry body Water UK Chief Executive Christine McGourty said: “This year’s results show that, overall, industry must do better.”
“Although there were companies that demonstrated excellent performance, the total number of serious pollution incidents was too high, bucking the recent trend of year-on-year improvements.”
She said that tackling this was the industry’s single biggest priority and that every company had a comprehensive plan in place to make that happen.
The latest assessment comes after the EA tightened its performance metrics. The agency says multiple companies failed to meet these new higher standards but that most of the water companies also saw their performance deteriorate based on the previous standards.
The Environment Agency itself is being investigated for how well it is doing its job.
The agency, along with Ofwat (the water industry regulator) and Defra, is being investigated by the new industry watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, for potentially failing to regulate sewage releases.
“You have to wonder if these lower ratings actually reflect a recent increase in scrutiny after years of regulators turning a blind eye,” said Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust.
“Clearly, the current regulatory system is not working properly, and something has to change.”