Up to £11 million from water company fines will be reinvested in schemes to improve waterways and wetlands, the government has said.

The Water Restoration Fund – which has now opened for applications – will offer grants to local groups, charities, farmers and landowners to help them improve rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands where illegal pollution has occurred.

Initiatives that could be given money might include schemes to create wetlands, boost wildlife and river habitats, and improve public access to green spaces.

The cash will come from fines and penalties issued to water companies for environmental breaches such as dumping sewage.

The £11m will be allocated to schemes in the areas where the water companies accrued the fines and penalties, the Environment Department (Defra) said.

These are: Anglian Water, £3,085,000; South West Water, £2,150,000; Thames Water, £3,334,000; United Utilities, £800,000; and Yorkshire Water, £1,600,750.

The fund is the government’s latest attempt to crack down on pollution caused by water companies and comes in the face of growing public anger over the state of England’s rivers and coastal waters.

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Explained: the UK’s sewage problem

Recent figures showed sewage was spilled into the sea for a record 3.6 million hours in 2023 and none of England’s rivers are in good health.

Environment secretary Steve Barclay has said the government is “taking tough action to ensure our regulators are well-equipped to hold those who pollute them to account”.

“Community-led projects are vital to improving and maintaining water quality across the country, and this fund will help build on that success,” he said.

A person holds up a placard as Surfers Against Sewage hold a UK-wide paddle-out protest at Brighton West Pier in East Sussex, demanding an end to sewage discharges into UK bathing waters by 2030. Picture date: Saturday May 20, 2023.
Members of the public at a Surfers Against Sewage protest in Bournemouth last year. Pic: PA

‘This is spare change for water firms,’ say government critics

In response to the announcement, Labour said the Conservatives “pretend they care” about England’s waterways.

Steven Reed, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said: “The Conservatives have spent 14 years letting water companies pump record levels of raw sewage into our rivers.

“In the dying days of a failed government, it’s a bit late for them to pretend they care.”

If Labour wins this year’s general election, Mr Reed has vowed that the party will “put the water companies under tough special measures” including “making water bosses face criminal charges for illegal sewage dumping”.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have claimed the government has “sat idly by whilst water firms commit environmental destruction”.

Their environment spokesperson Tim Farron said: “This is spare change for these water firms, who have made billions of pounds under this Conservative government’s watch.

“Frankly, this is an insultingly small amount and a slap in the face for communities blighted by the sewage scandal.”