Rock star Feargal Sharkey is calling on the government to take action now to stop water companies dumping raw sewage into rivers. The singer and anti-pollution campaigner wants ministers to stop talking about doing something and enforce existing laws to clean up our waterways.
Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey will this week unveil plans to “make polluters pay” by introducing unlimited fines that will go into a “water restoration fund”.
A six-week consultation will take place on measures including the Environment Agency being able to fine water companies without going through the courts.
Latest figures released on Friday revealed last year there were an average of 825 sewage spills into English rivers and the sea per day.
This was down by nearly a fifth on 2021 but the EA said this was “largely down to dry weather, not water company action”.
The Lib Dems have demanded Ms Coffey resign, while Labor dismissed the proposals as “flimsy” and pledged to ban all sewage dumping by 2030.
But Mr Sharkey, who shot to fame in the 1970s as frontman of Northern Irish band The Undertones, has been dismayed by the lack of action of successive governments.
He said: “Amid clamoring for her resignation and surrounded by yet another appalling set of sewage dumping numbers, the Secretary of State goes on the defensive and issues a non-policy.
“For 30 years, [regulator] Ofwat have actually had the legal ability to fine water companies up to 10 percent of their annual turnover, and it’s a power and authority they are yet to exercise with any vigour.
“We do not need new rules, we do not need new laws. We simply need existing legislation enforced and delivered.”
Water firms can discharge untreated sewage into rivers in exceptional circumstances – such as during heavy rainfall. But it is illegal to pump it into waterways during normal weather.
Since March last year Ofwat and the EA have opened enforcement cases involving Anglian Water, Northumbrian, Thames, Wessex, Yorkshire and South West Water for potential law breaches.
Mr Sharkey said £72billion has been paid out in dividends to shareholders and executives, while the privatized utilities have been saddled with £60billion worth of debts.
He said the release of raw sewage not only damages the environment but blights communities.
The 64-year-old Good Heart singer added: “All of that is caused simply by the greed of water companies and yet none of these local businesses, or people, have any recourse.
The government knows what is going on, they blindly turned an eye to it. The industry has known for decades what they are doing is wrong.”
The Derry-born star added: “The problem was the regulator never stepped in to make them stop, so they just kept on going.
“The truth is we don’t need a consultation, we don’t need any more decisions. We just need a regulatory system that is prepared to exercise the law as it currently stands and hold these companies to account.”
Currently, fines go to the Treasury but under Ms Coffey’s proposals all sanctions would be taken from water company profits, not customers, and retained by Defra.
They will then be reinvested into water quality improvement projects through the new Water Restoration Fund.
The Environment Secretary said: “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.”
Last night it was claimed that ministers are planning to crack down on wet wipes containing plastic within days.
Those containing toxic plastic could be banned altogether in a drive to clean up Britain’s waterways. Plastic-free wet wipes would be unaffected.