Annual bonuses paid to water utility executives jumped 20% in 2021, despite most companies missing wastewater pollution targets.
Figures show that, on average, executives received £100,000 in one-time payments on top of their salaries, during a period when dirty water was pumped for 2.7 million hours into England’s rivers and swimming spots.
Analysis of water companies’ annual reports found that their executive bonus pool now amounts to more than £600,000 per company on average.
In total, the 22 water chiefs paid themselves £24.8m, including £14.7m in bonuses, benefits and incentives, in 2021-2022.
This summer, sewage discharges continued to blight the country’s coastline, and this week tourists were told to stay away from the sea on some beaches. Data suggest that recent discharges have occurred in coastal areas of Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Essex, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland and Sussex.
Devon’s beaches are among those where locals and visitors have been urged not to swim due to human waste being dumped into the ocean.
Severn Trent gave the highest bonus, base salary and benefits payouts to executives, topping the table with £5,939,300, and United Utilities came in second, paying £4,218,000.
Richard Foord, MP for Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, has seen his constituency’s beaches marked as unsafe this week as a result of sewage discharges, saying: “Local people and tourists should not be forced to swim in means of human waste. Devon’s beaches are among the best in the world, but the government turns a blind eye as private companies ruin them.”
The south coast has been particularly hard hit by sewage spills, with Sussex facing beach closures.
Sussex MPs have written to the Southern Water and the Environment Agency asking them to respect and protect the coastline.
They called for a plan to end dumping, adding: “In addition to the obvious environmental and community impact, the closure of popular beaches and restrictions on inland waterways cause financial losses to the many businesses that depend on our beaches and rivers.”
Brighton & Hove City Council Leader Phélim Mac Cafferty has called for urgent action from Southern Water after human waste was dumped in a marine protected area.
“Like many, I dislike the scenes of raw sewage being dumped into the sea at Seaford. This marks another sad and bleak day for our environment.
“Seaford is in what is known as a Marine Protected Area, which is an area created specifically to protect wildlife and fragile habitats. Southern Water urgently needs to explain itself.
“Putting sewage into the sea not only harms wildlife, it affects everything from our health, public safety, to the local economy. It is in everyone’s interest that this Victorian malpractice be stopped now.”
More sewage alerts were issued in popular holiday destinations on Thursday, with the Isle of Wight particularly hard hit. There have been overflows, according to the Surfers Against Sewage map, in 12 different places around the island, and bathers have been warned they could get sick if they went into the sea.
Seaman Mary Phillips lives on the Isle of Wight and said: “I live near a beach that has been marked ‘no go’ due to the discharge of sewage this week. What a loss – many people love to walk, relax, swim, especially in this hot weather. Here on the Isle of Wight there was very little rain, so it’s ridiculous to blame flooding on storms.”
Hugo Tagholm, head of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Water companies have gone from extreme drought to extreme sewage pollution.
“Years of underinvestment are now in sight. It’s time for the huge profits of the water companies to be diverted into proper water and sewer management, and protecting people and the planet.
“Our rivers and beaches should not be subject to this type of industrial environmental vandalism.”
Last year, Southern Water was handed a record £90m fine after admitting it deliberately dumped large amounts of sewage into the sea along the southern coast.
Thames Water has come under fire for failing to fix leaky pipes, with a hose ban due to come into force next week for its customers, and last year gave executives £3m in bonuses, base pay and other benefits.
Liberal Democrat environmental spokesman Tim Farron said: “This is a national scandal. These disgusting polluting habits have made beaches unsafe in the middle of the summer holidays and have harmed Britain’s precious wildlife.
“The hose bans could have been avoided this summer if these water company CEOs had bothered to invest in their rusty pipes instead of pocketing the profits.
“They are putting profits before the environment. Frankly, everything sucks.
In a report released in July, the Environment Agency said water company bosses should face jail time for the worst pollution incidents and described the sector’s performance in 2021 as “the worst we’ve seen in years.” .
The agency said this week that the risk of surface water flooding from sudden heavy rains “reinforces the need for strong action by water companies to reduce discharges from storm surges.”
A Water UK spokesperson said: “Businesses agree there is an urgent need to act to address the damage caused to the environment by spills from storm surges and sewage treatment works. They are investing more than £3bn to improve overflows as part of a wider national program to improve the environment between 2020 and 2025, and leakage is at its lowest level on record with further reductions expected each year.
“The bonuses of all water company executives are linked to performance and reflect environmental and customer results. Private investment has brought more than £160bn into an industry that was previously cash-strapped, while improving the efficiency of water utilities by more than 70%. That efficiency means costs are lower, allowing bills to remain flat for more than a decade in real terms, while also enabling new investment in resiliency projects and reduced leakage.”