In a significant move, the UK government is considering measures that could result in water company executives losing their bonuses if their firms cause environmental harm, such as illegal sewage spills contaminating beaches or rivers.
Environment Secretary Stephen Barclay emphasized the need for water company leaders to take responsibility for their actions, stating that tougher measures were required to address the sector's poor performance. Campaigners and opposition parties have long called for restrictions on executive bonuses in the water industry.
The proposal, set to be examined in a consultation by regulator Ofwat later this year, aims to establish the criteria for withholding bonuses, focusing on incidents involving serious environmental damage or criminal breaches. Barclay asserted that no one should profit from illegal behavior, and companies involved in criminal breaches should not be rewarded with bonuses. If approved, the restrictions would impact bonuses for the financial year starting April 2024.
Public concern regarding the environmental health of the UK's water bodies has increased in recent years, particularly concerning raw sewage discharges. Private water companies, responsible for water supply and wastewater management, have faced criticism, intensified by a plan to raise water bills by approximately £156 a year by 2030 for infrastructure modernization.
Last year, executives from five of the 11 sewage-handling water companies received bonuses, while executives at the other six opted to forgo them under pressure from campaigners. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) outlined potential incidents that could lead to bonus restrictions, including pollution of bathing sites or conservation areas and serious management failings.
The proposal has garnered support from opposition parties, with Labour's shadow environment secretary, Steve Reed, highlighting their longstanding call for Ofwat to possess the authority to block bonuses. The Liberal Democrats, who have advocated for a bonus ban for an extended period, suggested that the proposal should extend to banning bonuses regardless of criminal conviction.
Ofwat, which seeks a substantial improvement in the sector's performance, had previously ordered firms to repay millions to households for failing to meet critical targets. Climate change and population growth further strain the UK's aging water infrastructure, prompting the government to address issues of accountability and environmental stewardship in the water sector.