Water Wars: Policy and Pollution

Bexley Beaumont Partner Emma Tattersdill writes that despite the latest pledge by the UK government to beef up the ability of courts to tackle water pollution, critics in Westminster and beyond argue that not enough use is being made of existing powers.

Given that we live in an island nation and subject to regular downpours, it might be easy to take water for granted.

Yet there has arguably never been a period in which the quality and quantity of water in the UK have received as much focus.

The impacts of climate change on year-'round water supplies which have been highlighted by the Environment Agency (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/meeting-our-future-water-needs-a-national-framework-for-water-resources/meeting-our-future-water-needs-a-national-framework-for-water-resources-accessible-summary) are just one part of the problem.

Even more contentious is the role played by Britain's major utility companies in keeping water clean as well as flowing.

Last month, The Times reported that raw sewage had been pumped into rivers and coastal areas more than 800 times a day last year on average 26/3 (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/d01083c4-cbda-11ed-b678-b1f2f968726b?shareToken=e22267e6ec13a0af459a449e98cbdfe7).

Soon after, the same title revealed that the number of incidents in which water companies breached their permits on the release of sewage had more than doubled in the space of a year (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sewage-breaches-by-water-firms-double-in-a-year-clean-it-up-3gp5fkhr3).

All of the 17 water or wastewater companies in England and Wales were found to have exceeded acceptable limits. The most frequent offender, Southern Water, accounted for more than one-third of all such events.

Unsurprisingly, there was much expectation when the Government announced its new 'Plan for Water' just days later.

Its proposals included measures to ensure water companies accelerate improvements to the necessary infrastructure which is so essential to handling both clean and dirty water, and supporting farmers to tackle pollution and boost food production (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-plan-for-cleaner-and-more-plentiful-water).

Nevertheless, Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey explained that there would also be "tougher enforcement" for those who failed to live up to the standards expected by the public.

Water companies, businesses and regulators all have a role, she said, in protecting our waterways.

Critics of the plan have, however, been keen to point out that there's nothing altogether new.

Just a fortnight before the Government was presenting its latest credentials as something of an environmental guardian, an influential House of Lords' Committee had savaged the current state of water regulation.

A report from the Industry and Regulators Select Committee painted a picture of under-investment, inadequate strategy and insufficient co-ordination between regulatory agencies (https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/517/industry-and-regulators-committee/news/194330/failures-of-regulators-water-companies-and-government-leaving-public-and-environment-in-the-mire/).

The Select Committee concluded that Ofwat and the Environment Agency must do more in terms of penalties and prosecution to hold water companies to account for pollution.

It also recommended that directors of companies which were responsible for serious pollution incidents should not only be subject to criminal sanction but banned from working in the water sector altogether to ensure individual accountability.

As others have remarked, the sort of investigative and punitive powers referred to by the Secretary of State in publishing the latest 'Plan for Water' already exist.

The criminal courts already have broadly unlimited sentencing powers for many environmental offences. A proposal to increase civil penalties - that is, those which are imposed directly by regulators without the need to take a case to court - has been criticised on the basis that such fines have never been successfully used in relation to water pollution offences.

The recent House of Lords' report noted that the regulators did not have sufficient funding to take enforcement action when it might have been merited.

Ministers and regulators remain confident that they can improve the situation.

This week saw the close of a three-week OFWAT consultation seeking feedback on its intention to approve 31 infrastructure improvement schemes put forward by water companies (https://www.ofwat.gov.uk/consultation/accelerated-infrastructure-delivery-project-draft-decisions/).

Another consultation - this time by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) - about the installation of monitors to provide real-time information about the amount of pollutants being discharged into water courses will run until the end of next month (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/continuous-water-quality-monitoring-and-event-duration-monitoring).

Courts will continue to play their role too. We await the outcome of two legal challenges - by way of judicial review - of the Government's strategy to reduce storm overflows (https://wildfish.org/latest-news/wildfish-granted-permission-to-challenge-the-governments-sewage-overflows-plan/#:~:text=Sewage%20draining%20from%20a%20pipe,that%20are%20causing%20the%20problem.).

Furthermore and only this week, South West Water has been fined £2.1 million for 13 offences stretching over a period of four years with the judge in that case observing that sentences should be calculated so that the shareholders and management of water companies fully understand the importance of complying with the law (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/south-west-water-given-21m-fine-for-pollution-offences).

As the integrity of water supplies across an ever-warmer planet becomes even more of a priority, the pressure on Government and water companies to prevent pollution and summertime shortages is likely to grow.

It remains to be seen whether the latest initiatives will have the desired effect or will be regarded in time as something of a damp squib.

To discuss any of the above further, please feel free to contact Emma Tattersdill: emmatattersdill@bexleybeaumont.com  |  07944 371558