Our rivers-protected by strong regulation and a 'world leading' Environment Act?

In this blog post, WTT Director Shaun Leonard shares his views on a recent speech made by the outgoing Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan. 

Foaming Bourton Mill Weir Martin Janes comp
Pollution at Bourton Mill Weir on the Buckinghamshire Ouse. Photo: Martin Janes.

Update December 2022: 

The Government have (two months late) announced legally binding environment targets. Conservation and fishery organisations have expressed their disappointment that the targets are not ambitious and do not address the health of our rivers. See, for example, comments from the Wildlife Trust and the Angling Trust.

November 2022:

The Environment Agency’s CEO, Sir James Bevan, gave a speech in London in November 2022 on regulation post-Brexit.

We would all applaud and support some of Sir James’s words – who wouldn’t?
He calls for clean water, air that’s safe to breathe, a green country, jobs and growth” and strong regulators: if regulators are going to do their jobs, they need the right powers, the right resources, the right laws and the right support”. Hurrah. We also support Sir James’s view that some things need to change, although the wholesale dumping of EU environmental regulation is very, very unlikely to be the answer, as many of our sister environmental NGOs have described.

However, in his speech, Sir James appears quite selective about the successes’ of the current system, including how EA’s regulation of water companies has brought 99% of England’s bathing waters above the minimum quality standard.
But, the EA’s latest (2021) environmental assessment of the water companies opens with:
In 2021, the environmental performance of England’s 9 water and sewerage companies was the worst we have seen for years”.

One reason may well be that the water industry has been allowed to mark its own homework through a system called Operator Self-Monitoring” and whilst regulation is there (and has always been there) to allow tough enforcement of that regulation, there is little evidence that it is being applied.

In that very same EA report, and thinking of its opening line quoted above, look to the table of sanctions (copied below).
The numbers are somewhat skewed by big fines on Thames Water in 2017 (£20M for one pollution) and on Southern Water in 2021 (£90M for multiple breaches) but the picture painted is not one of strong regulation and sanction against wrongdoers. Including this pair of outliers sees the average fine for a Category 1 or 2 pollution (by definition killing lots of fish) at about £2.8M; discount the outliers and the more average’ picture is a fine around £600K. For, by definition, killing lots of fish.
The broader environmental consequence of this pollution has been described in many places; see, for example, the 2021 Rivers Trust report, using largely the UK Govt’s own data, which notes that none of our rivers are in good overall health. They all fail chemical standards, and just 14% pass the bar for good ecological health”.

Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published its report in January 2022, noting that The impact of wastewater from sewage treatment works and sewer overflows is preventing 36% of water bodies from achieving good ecological status”.

So, 1 in 3 of our rivers are in a bad ecological state from sewage.

Another big impact on our rivers is from agriculture.
That same EAC report noted that The impact of diffuse pollution from [agriculture] is… the most common factor preventing rivers and other water bodies from achieving good ecological status, affecting 40% of them”. An increasing number of reports (e.g. on the Axe, the Wye and in North Devon) describe regulations at the very least not well enforced, because, as Sir James told a Commons Committee earlier this year, the government asked us [the EA] not to”. (See, for example, this report in The Guardian). 

Acknowledging the turmoil of the last few months and the churn of Environment Secretaries, it’s worrying that the UK Government has failed its legal obligation to publish targets for the Environment Act 2021, its much-trumpeted world-leading’ Act that will set an example for the rest of the world to follow”.

Quite rightly, our sister NGOs have formally complained to Defra.

We at WTT are very proud of our productive relationship with EA teams, involving local people in tackling local river habitat issues. But we see too many examples of industry harming our environment, seemingly with little or no consequences. So, yes please to strong regulators doing their jobs, with the right powers, the right resources, the right laws and the right support. From Government. 

Enforcement and sanctions for the 9 water and sewerage companies 2015 to 2021

Table extracted from: Water and sewerage companies in England: environmental performance report 2021

Year Number of prosecutions Value of prosecution fines Number of enforcement undertakings* Value of enforcement undertakings*
2015 9 £2,494,500 0 0
2016 10 £6,560,000 4 £610,000
2017 11 £21,589,334 15 £1,435,900
2018 3 £2,227,000 15 £3,432,150
2019 5 £1,297,000 11 £2,429,760
2020 3 £852,000 14 £2,465,901
2021 7 £102,490,000 9 £1,703,272

*An enforcement undertaking is a voluntary offer made by an offender to: put right the effects of their offending; put right the impact on third parties; make sure the offence cannot happen again.’