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The Environment Agency reviews the environmental performance of England’s water companies

  • The Environment Agency reviews the environmental performance of England’s water companies
  • Latest annual report by the Environment Agency shows that despite improvements, certain water companies are still failing in their duty to the environment

About the entity

The Environment Agency has released its annual report on the environmental performance of England’s nine water and sewerage companies.

Whilst there were improvements in 2020, no single company achieved all the expectations for the period 2015 to 2020. These included the reduction of total pollution incidents by at least one-third compared with 2012 and for incident self-reporting to be at least 75%.

The sector coped well with Covid-19 pressures in 2020 and recently committed over £850m to help contribute to a green recovery from the pandemic. However, a number of companies are still failing to live up to their responsibilities to regulators, their customers and the environment.

Since 2011 the EA has used the Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA), which rates each company in England from 1 star to 4 star, for performance on environmental commitments such as pollution incidents and treatment work compliance. Where these commitments are not achieved, companies will face underperformance penalties, with Ofwat having new powers to levy fines from 2020.

The report shows:

  • Southern Water and South West Water were rated as 2 star (requiring improvement)
  • Anglian Water and Thames Water were rated as 3 star (good)
  • Five companies (Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water, United Utilities, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water) achieved 4 stars, although certain improvements are still required
  • 2015-2020 expectations, including full compliance for waste water discharge permits and a 50% reduction in serious pollution incidents compared with 2012, have not been met
  • Severn Trent Water, United Utilities and Wessex Water sustained the highest level of performance for most of the last five years

Serious pollution incidents declined for the second year in a row to the lowest number ever – but while there were 285 fewer total pollution incidents than in 2019, it was still the second highest number of total incidents since 2015.

Southern Water and South West Water both performed significantly below target for this metric, Southern Water for the second year in a row and South West Water for the tenth year in the row. Both companies’ performances have been consistently unacceptable. Over half of serious incidents were also due to Anglian Water and Thames Water.

The results come the week after Southern Water was sentenced to pay a record-breaking £90 m fine after pleading guilty in court to 6971 unpermitted pollution discharges. The successful Environment Agency investigation was the biggest the regulator has ever conducted, making clear that polluters will be made to pay for damage to the environment. Earlier this year Thames Water was also fined £4 million and £2.3 million for separate pollution incidents.

Reactions to the Environment Agency’s environmental performance report

Northumbrian Water has noted the rating reflects the company’s work in 2020, displaying leading environmental practices. The company has achieved the top rating possible for its environmental performance and is investing £700 million to improve even further. As well as receiving the highest possible four stars in the Environment Agency’s (EA’s) Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA), the company has retained its industry-leading position on pollution. 2020 saw Northumbrian Water go above and beyond its regulatory commitment to the environment around water, with a dedicated team working to deliver improvements to wildlife and biodiversity, water quality and access for visitors.

Severn Trent remarked it was just one of three companies praised in the report, for sustaining the highest level of performance for most of the last five years. The company has been awarded a 4-star rating by the Environment Agency for the second year running – the regulator’s top grade for environmental performance. Liv Garfield, Severn Trent Chief Executive, said: “We’re proud to be one of the top performing water and waste companies when it comes to looking after the environment”, and she added “We want to keep hold of it, which is why we’ll continue to build on the great work we’re already doing. Whether it’s the £565m we’re investing as part of our Green Recovery programme or pressing ahead with plans to improve biodiversity through our Great Big Nature Boost scheme – we want to do more.”

Christine McGourty, Chief Executive of Water UK, also commented on the EA report: “This year’s Environmental Performance Assessment shows a record 5 companies in England achieving the highest possible 4-star rating for their environmental performance, while serious pollution incidents have also fallen to their lowest level ever. This means that the majority of water and sewerage companies are now defined as ‘industry leading’ by their independent environment regulator, a significant step forward and a reflection of the commitment and focus that water companies place on protecting and enhancing the environment”. And she noted that  companies are investing a further £5billion on environmental improvements over the next few years.

Finally, the Consumer Council for Water said that while there were some improvements none of England’s nine water and sewerage companies achieved all of the environmental expectations set out for 2015 to 2020. Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of CCW, said: “As water companies shape their plans for the future they need to understand that the next generation of bill payers will have even higher expectations of their company’s environmental performance – and right now some are a long way from meeting that level of ambition.”

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