Thousands of customers with 11 water firms are set to set to see money slashed off their bills after fines of almost £150 million were handed out by regulator Ofwat.
The action was taken after suppliers failed to meet target areas such as water supply interruptions, pollution incidents and internal sewer flooding.
Thames Water and Southern Water performed the worst and will have to return almost £80 million to customers.
It comes after sewage discharges, packed with faces-laden storm water, were pumped into coastal beauty spots along the south east of England.
The pair of companies cover tens of millions of households across Greater London, the Thames Valley and along the south coast, in Sussex and parts of Hampshire.
News of the fines has been welcomed by campaigners from Surfers Against Sewage who said the punishment was a ‘damning indictment’ of how some water companies treat their customers.
Eleven water firms have been ordered to pay back £150 million to customers across the nation for failing to meet key targets – which included the amount of sewage pumped out into seas. Pictured is sewage pouring into the North Sea
Thames Water and Southern Water performed the worst and will have to return almost £80 million to customers between them. Pictured is wastewater being discharged into the Swale from nearby paper mills, Kemsley, Kent
David Black, the chief executive of regulator Ofwat for England and Wales, said ‘too many water companies are falling short’ of the standards
Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of SAS, told MailOnline: ‘Water companies are being forced to give back money to bill payers as a result of failing to adequately protect the environment.
‘They seem to be experts at polluting. They simply haven’t done their job properly – again putting profits ahead of protecting our rivers and seas.
‘This is a damning indictment of how they treat their customers cash – pocketing rather than investing in the solutions to end sewage pollution, protect our environment and safeguard all those that use and depend on clean water.
‘It’s high time their profits were capped until they sort out the stink coming from their woeful performance.’
On social media, the reaction was mixed.
One user tweeted: ‘£28mil is chump change but will hopefully remind @SouthernWater that [their] disingenuous reputation is still firmly in the gutter & nothing short of wholesale change is essential.’
While another commented: ‘I’d rather they didn’t pollute in the first place. They need to clear up now …@thameswater @SouthernWater !!!’
Although 11 companies have been fined, others which exceeded their targets will be able to recover more money from customers, meaning they could see their bills go up.
Water firms told to cut costs for customers
- Thames Water £51m
- Southern Water £28.3m
- Northumbrian Water £20.3m
- Yorkshire Water £15.2m
- South West Water £13.3m
- Anglian Water £8.5m
- Dŵr Cymru £8m
- South East Water £3.2m
- Affinity Water £0.8m
- Hafren Dyfrdwy £0.4m
- SES Water £0.3m
Severn Trent Water, which supplies millions of people with water across England, performed particularly well in the regulator’s review and will be able to increase customer payments by £63 million in the year ahead.
But Ofwat noted all firms would be allowed to boost charges in line with inflation, using the consumer prices index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) – which hit 8.6 per cent in the 12 months to August.
This means that some reductions could be offset by inflation-linked price rises in customers’ bills.
David Black, the chief executive of Ofwat for England and Wales, said: ‘When it comes to delivering for their customers, too many water companies are falling short, and we are requiring them to return around £150 million to their customers.
‘We expect companies to improve their performance every year; where they fail to do so, we will hold them to account.
‘The poorest performers, Southern Water and Thames Water, will have to return almost £80 million to their customers.
‘All water companies need to earn back the trust of customers and the public and we will continue to challenge the sector to improve.’
The news comes amid intense scrutiny of water companies following sewage discharges across the nation, with have led to fury in coastal communities in the south-east of England.
On Sunday, hundreds environmental campaigners took to Bexhill beach, in East Sussex, to create a human chain following a large discharge of sewage at the site.
Protesters have also taken to the streets and beaches across the city of Portsmouth over the amount of sewage dumped in and around the Solent.
The main sticking point is Langstone Harbour, which has previously seen vast amounts of faeces-laden discharge being pumped out into the coastal beauty spot.
Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of Portsmouth City Council, said residents were sick and tired of it.
Speaking to MailOnline, Cllr Vernon-Jackson said: ‘People here are furious. They are swimming in sewage.
The release of sewage water across coastal communities in the south-east of England have left people furious. This discharge of untreated sewage in Bexhill, East Sussex, in August sparked a protest on Sunday, with people creating a human chain on the beach.
Campaigners have demanded that infrastructure is upgraded to stop leaks and sewage discharges. Pictured are disused sewage pipes at Morecambe Bay
‘It’s not good enough that when I go and see Southern Water, they are incredibly proud that they have only released raw sewage 1,000 times this year into Langstone Harbour. They think it’s brilliant. It’s not brilliant. People are swimming in sewage.’
Sewage has also been expelled on beaches across East and West Sussex, with human excrement having been pumped out in the sea around Littlehampton, Shoreham and Hove.
Water companies that can hike their costs
- Severn Trent Water £62.9m
- United Utilities £24.1m
- Wessex Water £4.4m
- South Staffs Water £3.0m
- Portsmouth Water £0.8m
- Bristol Water £0.6m
Councillor Neil Parkin, leader of Adur District Council – which covers Shoreham – demanded water companies ‘cleaned their acts up’.
Speaking to MailOnline, Cllr Parkin said: ‘It’s the same old excuses all the time and there doesn’t seem to be any change. It’s the ultimate groundhog day.
‘The reason that Southern Water gives is that when we have a big storms, if they didn’t release the sewage, homes would flood.
‘Well, I’ve been leader of the council for over 20 years and it’s been the same old excuse during all this time.
‘It’s about time they did something to get their acts together. They need to invest a bit more in the infrastructure, not giving millions to their shareholders.
Ofwat’s review follows a period of drought and with some areas of the country facing hosepipe bans during the summer heatwaves.
Mr Black said in August that targets for areas such as leaks are ‘challenging but achievable’, revealing that he did have concerns about the performance of some companies.
The yearly targets were set at the regulator’s last price review in 2019 and will be in place up until the next review in 2025.
Customers should see their bills reduced in 2023 to 2024.
MailOnline has approached Southern Water for comment.
What are the current laws on water companies releasing sewage into rivers and the sea?
Britain’s sewer system, which is still largely Victorian, becomes unable to cope when there is too much rainwater, causing sewage works to become overwhelmed.
It is under these circumstances that water companies are permitted to release rainwater, and a smaller amount of untreated sewage, directly into rivers and the sea, to stop waste backing up in streets and homes.
But environmentalists say better infrastructure, like storage tanks at treatment works, or nature-based solutions like tree-planting, could better tackle the problem, which has become excessive.
Figures show more than 400,000 sewage ‘overflows’ took place into English waters last year, lasting a total of 3.1 million hours, compared to 293,000 in 2019.
The WWF has suggested that water companies are ‘relying on sewer overflows to compensate for under-capacity’.
Waste water is normally released to the environment following treatment, either out to sea through long sea outfalls or coastal discharges, or into rivers.
The proposed amendment to the Government’s Environment Bill had been inserted into the legislation by the House of Lords but MPs voted to remove it.
The amendment aimed to clean up rivers by placing a new duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers.