The government pledged to raise the ceiling on the amount of money Environment Agency Water companies can be fined for polluting sewage up to £250m and it has been described as ‘hot air’, with the Guardian newspaper revealing that the regulator has failed to impose any such penalties since it was given powers to do so 12 years ago.
Variable financial penalties (VMPs) were introduced in 2010 to enable the Environment Agency to impose direct fines for serious environmental crimes without having to go through expensive and lengthy court proceedings, but so far the agency has not imposed one VMP against water companies.
Despite this, the environment minister, Ranil Jayawardena, announced last week a 1,000-fold increase in the cap on project management plans, from £250,000 to £250m, and said larger financial penalties would “act as a greater deterrent and will push water companies to do so.” More, and faster, when it comes to investing in infrastructure and improving our water quality” and that “the polluter must pay.”
But the Environment Agency does not appear to be in a position to support the move. After repeated big budget cuts, the agency’s chief executive, Sir James Bevan, said the regulator was no longer sufficiently funded and would have to stop or stop some of its activities to protect the environment.
The lack of VMPs is part of the broader picture of diminishing enforcement on the part of the regulator, which has asked its employees to “closeHe ignored reports of low-impact pollution events, saying he didn’t have enough money to investigate them.
The Environment Agency has also downgraded its water quality monitoring system Reduced 93% of prosecutions for serious contamination over a four-year period, despite recommendations from frontline staff that offenders face the highest penalty, agency staff say Reductions and operational decisions It made her “toothless”.
Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, the grant amount allocated by the Environment Agency for public enforcement activity fell from £11.6m to £7m, according to a report from National Audit Bureau (NAO). This includes enforcement associated with the regulation of industrial facilities, storm flows, and fisheries, as well as response to serious pollution incidents.
During the same period, the Office of Civil Aviation says the number of environmental agency prosecutions has fallen, from 768 in 2009-10 to 17 in 2020-21.
“The sanctions are only relevant if you have a regulator willing to impose them,” said an informed source at the Environment Agency, adding that the water company’s self-regulation does not work.
The Environment Agency has been liberalizing water quality for a number of years, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Funding increases are still directed away from front-line organizations. It appears that penalties such as VMPs will only be imposed if the water company chooses to report and punish itself.”
Richard Broadbent, director of Freeths law firm and former head of legal services at Natural England, said: “While reliance on regulatory tools is a matter of regulator’s judgment, they are there for their use, and failure to do so for extended periods may signal the Time to restrict discretion.
“It seems strange for the government to promote its benefits [an] Increasing water pollution penalties when it relates to a regulatory tool that the regulator does not favor and does not directly assist it in terms of managing its operating costs.”
Broadbent said the only way to increase sanctions would make sense “if the government combines them with a set of measures designed to give the Environment Agency the resources it needs to properly perform its functions.”
Ash Smith, founder Wind against sewage pollutionhe said, “Supposedly, someone is in Devra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] He was tasked with creating something that seemed powerful and cost nothing. Raising the level of unused fines would be the perfect shot, but the fact that no one trusts government ministers anymore, and even a quick peek under the hood shows that there is no engine in the car that Mr Jayawardena is trying to sell to the public.”
Smith described the ad as “more hot air from the government that could easily prevent pollution from being profitable but simply refuse to do so and passed an environmental law allowing illegal pollution to continue.”
“The reality is that deliberate weak regulation and flawed privatization created a polluting profit-making feast that attracted property from all over the world to extract money for nothing and get it outside tax-free.
“We can expect more threats and desperate promises such as increased penalties that will not really be used, as the government carefully tries not to intimidate shareholders or show the public a widespread fraud.”
Defra declined to comment on the lack of small throughput programs, but said it is reviewing the Environment Agency’s civil penalties system more broadly to consider more opportunities to improve the water company’s compliance with environmental law.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “VMPs have so far had limited use against water companies. One reason for their limited use so far is the current £250,000 cap, which has prevented the Environment Agency from using VMP if they believe a fine is warranted. Higher. By raising the cap to £250m, we will enable the Environment Agency to issue VMPs in more cases, and with greater impact in discouraging non-compliance.”