Unlimited penalties for polluters

Companies who pollute the environment can be hit with unlimited financial penalties from the Environment Agency.

River water
Photo by Adam Montgomery on Unsplash

The previous £250,000 cap on Variable Monetary Penalties (VMPs) has been scrapped and the range of offences covered has been expanded, meaning the Environment Agency has more tools with which to hold the water industry, and others, to account. The range of offences that can be punished with a VMP now include:

  • Breach of permit conditions from sites that discharge into rivers and seas – for example from sewage treatment works and permitted storm overflows;
  • Illegal discharges to water where there is no permit, such as in the event of agricultural pollution from slurry stores;
  • Illegal waste offences, such as from illegal scrapyards or unpermitted waste management facilities;
  • Permit breaches from manufacturing industries and power stations which contribute to air pollution.
  • New unlimited penalties – a measure in the UK Government’s Plan for Water – form part of work to ensure there is more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement across the water system.

The changes, which follow a consultation in Spring 2023, affect all firms that have environmental permits, including water and waste companies as well as the agricultural sector and process industries. Penalties issued will be proportionate to the size of the company and the nature of the offence, in line with Sentencing Council guidelines.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Polluters should be in no doubt that if they harm our precious habitats and waterways they will pay. By lifting the cap on these sanctions, we are simultaneously toughening our enforcement tools and expanding where regulators can use them. These changes will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits and cause pollution”

As well as changes to the VMP system, the Government will also hold polluters accountable for environmental damage. Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) has been given increased powers to ensure water company dividends are linked to environmental performance while the regulator has also tightened the rules on bonus payments. The funds raised from water company penalties are to be reinvested in a new Water Restoration Fund, designed to provide direct investment for projects that work to improve our rivers, lakes and streams at a local level.