Environment Agency needs return of GBP120m grant to protect rivers, says CEO

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The head of the Environment Agency has called for the government to reinstate a GBP120m grant to help increase surveillance of water companies and cut pollution in rivers.

Sir James Bevan, the chief executive of the agency, told MPs that water companies and the farming industry, the two main polluters of rivers, were not doing enough to protect the environment.

Cuts to the agency budget of nearly two-thirds since 2010 mean it would take staff 200 years to visit every farm in Britain. The limited resources have also affected monitoring of water companies and their discharges of raw sewage into rivers. “It is having an effect on our ability to know what is going on and to act effectively,” Bevan said.

Bevan told MPs on the environmental audit committee that the government grant to the agency had been cut from GBP120m in 2010 to GBP40m last year.

“I would like to see that grant restored,” he said. “I would like to get to a point where we were 10 years ago. That would make a massive difference in terms of people and hardware to monitor. I would like to do more surveillance of water companies.”

Due to the funding cuts the agency had only a couple of hundred people dedicated to inspecting and monitoring discharges and pollution by water companies, he said.

Bevan said his staff made about 9,000 inspections a year. But Philip Dunne, the chair of the environmental audit committee, pointed out that there were about 15,000 combined sewer overflows – which discharge raw sewage into rivers after heavy rainfall.

“So you are inspecting just over half of the sites once a year,” said Dunne.

Bevan said his agency believed that storm overflows were spilling raw sewage more frequently into rivers. “We think that over the last several decades these CSOs [combined sewer overflows], which are designed to overflow when there is heavy rain … are spilling more frequently and spilling larger volumes. That is likely to be because there is more development, more people and more sewage and because of climate change causing violent weather, more rain and heavier rain.”

Latest data revealed that the nine English water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers more than 400,000 times over 3.1m hours in 2020.

Bevan said the latest report on the performance of English water companies, likely to be published next month, would show some improvement, including the lowest number of serious pollution incidents. But he said: “Not every water company is doing well. Some of them are doing extremely badly and it is not good enough.”

The Green party MP, Caroline Lucas, asked why data, presented to the committee by Prof Peter Hammond, showed that the number of illegal spills by water companies were more than 10 times greater than the number of agency prosecutions.

“We take seriously his evidence,” he said. “We do need to check out reports of serious violations when we have good reason to believe those have happened or if there was deliberate culpability or serious environmental harm. I am sure that there are spills from CSOs that neither we nor frankly the water companies are always aware of and we are working with them to ensure better monitoring.”

Lucas asked whether he had the resources to follow up. “Do we have the resources to do all we want to? No,” he said. “Resources are a factor. We do not have as much resource as we used to and that is having an effect on our ability to understand what is going on and to take action.”

Bevan said he would like to see eye-watering fines for water companies which would make their boards take notice.

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