Water companies could face unlimited fines and penalties under new Government plans to tackle pollution.
Environment Secretary Therese Coffey is expected to announce next week plans that ministers believe will “make polluters pay”, with tougher fines levied on water companies put into a “water restoration fund”.
It comes as the latest Environment Agency figures showed there were a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022 – an average of 824 a day.
Discharges fell by 19% in 2022 – but this was due to dry weather rather than any action taken by water companies, the agency said.
Part of the plan will see Ms Coffey publish a six-week consultation on strengthening the Environment Agency’s ability to impose sanctions on water companies without going through the courts.
The Government is believed to support a lifting of the upper cap on civil penalties on water companies, allowing unlimited fines.
Defra said the penalties would be quicker and easier to enforce, with the most serious cases still taken through criminal proceedings.
The Government has been under serious pressure from campaigners to tackle pollution in recent months, with the new measures expected to form part of plans to toughen enforcement against companies.
Opposition parties have also condemned the Government, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer telling The Guardian that ministers were “turning Britain’s waterways into an open sewer”.
The Liberal Democrats have called on Ms Coffey to quit over the issue.
Ms Coffey said: “I know how important our beautiful rivers, lakes, streams and coastlines are for people and nature – and I couldn’t agree more that more needs to be done to protect them.
“I want to make sure that regulators have the powers and tools to take tough action against companies that are breaking the rules, and to do so more quickly.
“Through the Water Restoration Fund, I will be making sure that money from higher fines and penalties – taken from water company profits, not customers – is channelled directly back into the rivers, lakes and streams where it is needed.
“We know that around 310 miles of rivers each year have been improved through community-led projects – we must build on that success.”
Currently, penalties and fines imposed by Ofwat are returned to the Treasury. But new Government plans will see the money instead be returned to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Campaigners have accused water companies of discharging sewage much more often than they should, including when there has been no rain, and have repeatedly called on water companies to use their profits to invest in more infrastructure.
Defra said that the new fund will be intended to help local groups identify the biggest issues and direct investment to where it is most needed, with the money going to support a range of projects including the restoration of wetlands, the creation of new habitats and adding natural bends to rivers to improve water quality.