‘Mark of shame’: Only one water company achieves best ranking in latest assessment

The latest assessment of water companies in England has been described as a “mark of shame”, with only one company keeping its top rating and two companies being responsible for more than half of the serious pollution incidents recorded in 2022.

Environment Agency staff. Source - GettyImages, Peter Macdiarmid

The Environment Agency’s Environmental Performance Assessment (EPA) looks at the annual environmental performance of each water company that supplies water in England, taking into account how they’ve met commitments such as reducing pollution incidents and improving treatment work compliance. 

It was introduced in 2011 as a non-statutory tool for comparing performance between water and sewerage companies, ​​then sees the companies ranked from one star to four stars, with one being the worst ranking. 

In the 2022 assessment, published yesterday, Severn Trent Water performed the best out of all the water companies assessed, retaining a four star rating for the fourth year, with United Utilities and Northumbrian Water both dropping down from this rating to three stars. 

However, in his foreword to the report, EA chair Alan Lovell said “they are at the top of a very poor league”. 

The amount of ‘serious pollution incidents’ recorded in 2022 was lower than in 2021, going down from 62 to 44.However it is notable that the bulk of these incidents were attributed to just two companies – Thames Water (17) and Anglian Water (11) – both companies kept their two star rankings from last year. 

This is also despite both companies having the lowest percentage of event duration monitors installed on their storm overflows, at 68.2% coverage and 61.8% coverage respectively, meaning many incidents may go unreported.  

This news comes as Thames Water made headlines last month after it was found to be on the brink of collapse having racked up £14 billion debt since privatisation, it then received a £3.3 million fine for pollution offences and now is set to receive a financial penalty from Ofwat for missing targets.

READ MORE:  How did Thames Water end up in so much debt?

Of the remaining companies, Yorkshire Water made an improvement on the previous year going up from two stars to three, Southern Water and South West Water went up from one star to two stars, and Wessex Water stayed at two stars.  

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has also reduced Welsh Water’s company rating of three stars to two stars. The company was featured in parts of the EA assessment, but not the rankings. 

Lovell said: “While there have been some modest improvements, it is unacceptable to still be seeing this level of pollution. 

“We have seen a distinct culture shift from the water industry in recent months and that is welcome – but that must translate to profound, long-term change.”

Yesterday, new legislation was put before Parliament that will see regulators able to impose unlimited fines on water companies and other environmental offenders using Variable Monetary Penalties (VMPs).

READ MORE: Are the government’s new ‘better, quicker, faster’ unlimited civil sanctions all they’re cracked up to be?

Water minister Rebecca Pow described the measure as “an important tool in [the EA’s] armoury to hold companies to account”. 

Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, described the EPA results as “yet another mark of shame for water companies”.  

He continued: “Changes are coming in a slow trickle, while pollution and leakage continue in torrents. 

“Increased fines may help, but making polluters pay for the big incidents doesn't make up for the daily stream of pollution. A wholesale shift is needed to make polluters pay, not just to clean up individual incidents, but to fund improvements for our rivers, and nature-restoration across whole landscapes.”

Benwell described government action as “essential” but too slow.

He continued: “Accountability is patchy, with regulators too stretched to enforce effectively. And any move to weaken current rules for nutrient neutrality would only add to the utterly unsustainable pollution pressure on precious river habitats.”

A Water UK spokesperson said: “Today’s results demonstrate the need to further accelerate improvements in environmental performance.

“We have seen a reduction in the number of serious pollution incidents, companies have delivered virtually all environmental projects required by the regulator, and over 99% of sewage works now meet the rules in their legal permit. However, the performance of some companies, as they acknowledge, is not improving fast enough and pollution incidents remain too high. 

“The industry is strongly committed to accelerating the pace of improvement, including with a £10bn overhaul of our Victorian sewage system to transform our rivers and seas.”