United Utilities and Yorkshire Water were responsible for 124,000 sewage spills by water companies in England last year, more than 40 per cent of the number recorded, according to the country’s pollution watchdog.
Data published by the Environment Agency on Friday showed 10 water and sewerage companies operating in England spilled sewage into rivers and the sea on 301,091 occasions last year — a 19 per cent drop compared with 2021.
The fall was, however, the result of unusually dry weather rather than “water company action”, the regulator said. A drought was formally declared across large swaths of England in August during the driest summer for 50 years.
Water minister Rebecca Pow said: “The volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is unacceptable and we are taking action to make sure polluters are held to account.”
EA executive director John Leyland said the regulator wanted to see “quicker progress from water companies on reducing spills and acting on monitoring data”.
The privatised water sector has come under growing pressure over the volume of sewage entering the UK’s waterways and the sea, as well as over water wastage and leaky pipes.
Some environmental campaigners say the government and Ofwat, the industry’s economic regulator, must do more to ensure that companies invest in upgrading their services and reducing pollution incidents.
The EA has also come under scrutiny from campaigners who say it is critically underfunded and unable to hold offenders to account.
Companies including Severn Trent, United Utilities and Thames Water have been sent thousands of written warnings by the watchdog over suspected offences since 2015, according to analysis by the Financial Times of official data.
United Utilities is also facing a legal challenge from the Manchester Ship Canal Company in relation to the alleged discharge of sewage into the waterway.
Friday’s data showed that sewage spills in 2022 lasted for a combined 1.8mn hours, with an average individual spill lasting six hours.
The EA said its findings would inform the next “price review”, which sets out how much water companies can charge customers in the next five-year regulatory period from 2025.
It also noted that more than 91 per cent of storm overflows — the mechanisms designed to release excess water from the sewerage system into rivers or the sea to ensure it is not overwhelmed — were now fitted with the monitoring devices required by the government.
Ministers have asked water companies to install such monitors on all storm overflows by the end of this year.
Megan Corton Scott, political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said the EA’s findings showed water companies had “no shame”, adding: “They have no commercial incentive to do anything other than collect the money their customers have no choice over giving them.”
United Utilities said it knew there was “much more to be done”, had “ambitious plans to deliver further improvements”, and that the case involving the Manchester Ship Canal Company had “never been about avoiding accountability”.
Yorkshire Water said it was “determined to tackle this issue” and that reducing overflows was both “a priority” and “a significant task”.
“Replumbing the whole of Yorkshire is not a quick fix as it would be both significantly disruptive and costly to customers,” the company said, adding that a £180mn storm overflow improvement plan was “already in motion”.