Annual bonuses paid to water company executives rose by 20% in 2021, despite most companies failing to meet sewage pollution targets.
Figures show that managers received an average of £100,000 in lump sum payments on top of their salaries, during a period in which foul water was pumped for 2.7 million hours into England’s rivers and bathing grounds.
The analysis of water companies’ annual reports found that their executive bonus pot is now 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 2021-22.
This summer, sewage spills have continued to wreak havoc on the country’s coastline, with holidaymakers told to stay out of the sea on some beaches this week. Data suggests that recent spills have taken place in the 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 because of human waste being pumped into the sea.
Severn Trent issued the highest payouts in bonuses, basic pay and benefits to executives, topping the list with £5,939,300, and United Utilities came second, paying £4,218,000.
Richard Foord, MP for Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, has seen beaches in his constituency flagged as unsafe this week as a result of sewage spills, saying: “Local people and holidaymakers should not be forced to swim in human waste. Devon’s beaches are among the best in the world, but the government turns a blind eye while private companies destroy them.”
The south coast has been particularly hard hit by the sewage spills, with Sussex facing beach closures.
Sussex MPs have written to the Southern Water and Environment Agency asking them to respect and protect the coast.
They called for a plan to end the spills, adding: “In addition to the obvious environmental and community impact, the closure of popular beaches and restrictions on inland waterways are causing economic loss to the many businesses that depend on our beaches and rivers. “
Brighton & Hove City Council leader Phélim Mac Cafferty called for urgent action from Southern Water after human waste was released into a protected marine area.
“Like many, I am sickened by the scenes of raw sewage being pumped into the sea in Seaford. This marks yet another sad and strong day for our environment.
“Seaford is in what is known as a marine protected area, which is an area specifically set up to protect fragile wildlife and habitats. Southern Water urgently needs to explain itself.
“Dumping sewage into the sea not only harms wildlife, it affects everything from our health, public safety to the local economy. It is in all our interests that this Victorian malpractice stops now.”
Further sewer warnings were issued on Thursday across popular holiday destinations, with the Isle of Wight particularly affected. There have been overflows, according to the Surfers Against Sewage map, at 12 different locations around the island, with swimmers warned they could become unwell if they go in the sea.
Seaman Mary Phillips, who lives on the Isle of Wight, said: “I live near a beach which has been marked as a ‘no go’ because of a sewage spill this week. Such a loss – many people love to walk, relax, swim – especially in this hot weather. Here on the Isle of Wight we had very little rain, so ridiculous to blame it on storm floods.”
Hugo Tagholm, head of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Water companies have turned from extreme drought to extreme sewage pollution.
“Years of underinvestment are now in sight. It’s time for huge profits from water companies to be used to properly manage water and sewage, protecting people and planet.
“Our rivers and beaches should not be subjected to this kind of industrial environmental vandalism.”
Last year, Southern Water was fined a record £90m after admitting to deliberately dumping huge amounts of sewage into the sea off the south coast.
Thames Water has come under fire for failing to fix leaking pipes, with a hosepipe ban coming into place next week for customers, and last year managers handed out £3m in bonuses, basic pay and other benefits.
The Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesman, Tim Farron, said: “This is a national scandal. These disgusting polluting habits have left beaches unsafe in the middle of the summer holidays and harmed precious British wildlife.
“Hose bans could have been avoided this summer if the managing directors of the water companies bothered to invest in rusty pipes instead of pocketing profits.
“They put profit over the environment. Frankly, it all stinks.”
In a report published in July, the Environment Agency said water company bosses should face prison for the worst pollution incidents, describing the sector’s performance in 2021 as the “worst we have seen for many years”.
The agency said this week that the risk of stormwater flooding caused by sudden heavy rain “reinforces the need for robust action by water companies to reduce discharges from storm surges”.
A spokesperson for Water UK said: “Companies agree that there is an urgent need for action to tackle the damage caused to the environment by spills from storm drains and treatment plants. They are investing over £3 billion to improve spillways as part of a wider national program to improve the environment between 2020 and 2025, and leakage is the lowest level on record with further sharp reductions planned each year.
“The bonuses of all water company executives are linked to performance and reflect customer and environmental outcomes. Private investment has brought more than £160 billion into a previously cash-starved industry, while improving water company efficiency by over 70%. This efficiency means that costs are lower, allowing bills to remain roughly the same for over a decade in real terms, while allowing for new investment in resilience projects and reduced leakage.”