Give charities power to take polluting water companies to court, say Lib Dems

The Liberal Democrats are set to call for regulator Ofwat to be abolished as part of plans to overhaul the UK’s water industry.

Christopher McKeon
Tuesday 12 March 2024 22:30 GMT
The Liberal Democrats want to give the public the right to take legal action against water companies that pollute rivers (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)
The Liberal Democrats want to give the public the right to take legal action against water companies that pollute rivers (Anna Gowthorpe/PA) (PA Wire)

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Louise Thomas

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Charities and private citizens should have the power to take polluting water companies to court because the Environment Agency cannot keep up with the industry’s rule-breaking, the Liberal Democrats have said.

The party is calling for the creation of “citizen regulators” as part of efforts to combat sewage discharges into Britain’s rivers.

Its proposals also include a radical overhaul of the industry, abolishing “flawed” regulator Ofwat and turning water firms into “public benefit companies” which would put the environment before profit.

Lib Dem environment spokesman Tim Farron said: “It is time to put power in the hands of local campaigners to take these polluting firms to court.

“The polluter must be forced to pay, but too often they are getting away with environmental destruction. The Environment Agency and regulator Ofwat have proved too flawed and feeble to take on profiteering water firms.

“Conservative ministers have buried their heads in the sand for years, leaving wildlife to be poisoned and swimmers told to stay away from beaches and lakes. Conservative MPs have too often ignored the issue or, worse still, defended water companies.”

The plan for “citizen regulators” would see charities and private individuals given the power to take water companies to court for polluting waterways, and keep a proportion of any fine as a “bounty” for a successful prosecution.

A similar scheme operates in the United States, where groups such as the RiverKeepers Alliance and Natural Resources Defence Council have used legal action to deter pollution.

The Lib Dems pointed to the Congaree Riverkeepers, who ended decades-long polluting of South Carolina’s Saluda River through litigation.

The party argues that the move is necessary because the Environment Agency lacks the resources to keep on top of pollution cases.

In answers to parliamentary questions from Mr Farron, the Government said there are only around 140 legal professionals working at the Environment Agency – 1% of its total staff – but water companies breached their permits more than 500 times in 2022.

The Liberal Democrats have led the charge in Westminster on water pollution

Lib Dem environment spokesman Tim Farron

The new proposals on water pollution will form part of a policy platform unveiled at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference this weekend as it prepares to fight the general election expected to take place at the end of the year.

Mr Farron added: “The Liberal Democrats have led the charge in Westminster on water pollution. We will now go into the general election as the party with the toughest stance on disgraced water firms.”

On Monday, the Government announced that water companies will invest £180 million in tackling sewage spills by April 2025.

Proposed measures include artificial intelligence systems, accelerated wetland programmes, installing new in-sewer monitors, and recruiting and training specialist staff.

The Government also recently announced plans to block bonuses for water company executives where firms have committed serious criminal breaches, subject to Ofwat consultation, as well as to quadruple inspections on water companies in the next year.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We’re cracking down on pollution damaging our waterways, and in just the last few weeks we announced a consultation to ban water bosses’ bonuses when criminal breaches have occurred and an expansion of the Environment Agency’s specialised workforce, which will quadruple water company inspections.

“This is on top of scrapping the cap on civil penalties to ensure that polluters always pay.”

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