Clean our rivers or face £250m fine, new Environment Secretary tells polluting water firms

Ranil Jayawardena Environment Secretary clean rivers - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph
Ranil Jayawardena Environment Secretary clean rivers - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

Fines for water companies who seriously breach rules by dumping sewage in rivers and seas will be increased 1,000 fold, the new Environment Secretary has revealed.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Ranil Jayawardena said that the current upper limit of £250,000 per incident would be raised to £250 million.

Mr Jayawardena said that the failure of firms to do more to stop pollution pouring into Britain’s waterways was “totally unacceptable” as he made it one of his top priorities in office.

He also said the fines increase had partly been inspired by The Telegraph’s Clean Rivers Campaign, which has exposed the scale of the problem and how little is being done to fix it.

Elsewhere in the interview, Mr Jayawardena’s first since taking the role, there is a defence of lifting the fracking ban and dismissal of calls for people to eat less meat to protect the planet.

Mr Jayawardena also insisted he is up to the job of defending the UK’s green spaces despite being just 36, the youngest member of Liz Truss’s new Cabinet.

He began by making clear his anger at the problem of waste flowing into rivers and seas as a result of both the UK’s Victorian sewage system and big business inaction.

“It is totally unacceptable,” Mr Jayawardena said, noting that he called a meeting of water company executives on his first day in the job to give them a dressing down.

“I told them that point blank. I said it is not acceptable and they’ve got to sort it out. Whether it’s on our beaches or indeed in our rivers, it must stop.

“The British people expect that. I expect that personally. I think it’s something that can be delivered as well. I don’t think it’s undeliverable.

“And so that’s why I asked the water companies to bring forward plans to set up what they were going to do. And indeed, I will continue to push them to accelerate those plans.”

The problem is one that crosses party lines in triggering anger and demands for action, with Boris Johnson’s government being blindsided by a Tory rebellion pushing for change.

It is also a problem getting worse. Last year, there were 62 serious pollution incidents by water companies – a jump of 50 per cent from the 44 incidents in the previous year.

Ranil Jayawardena - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Ranil Jayawardena - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

“I’ve been following your Clean Rivers Campaign, which is absolutely right. I fully support that campaign,” Mr Jayawardena went on.

“And to that end, I’ve instructed officials here that we should be lifting the fines that we levy on water companies.”

The rise, on the face of it, is eye-watering. Variable monetary penalties, as they are called, are the environmental equivalent to speeding tickets, according to industry experts.

They are civil sanctions, issued by the Environment Agency, that can be levied on polluting companies and are an alternative to criminal measures.

The maximum penalty per incident is currently £250,000 per incident. “In the grand scheme of a water company’s profits, that is not going to make a dent,” Mr Jayawardena said.

Instead, he wants that upper limit to be £250 million – to “send a very clear signal that we want clean rivers and we’re going to act to make sure water companies sort it out”.

The vast increase is designed to catch the attention of water company bosses and perhaps the public too. But will we ever see such high fines being issued? That remains to be seen.

E, F, G approach as easy as A, B, C

Something of an alphabetical approach has been seen by Ms Truss’s new front-benchers to their departmental briefs.

Therese Coffey, the new Health Secretary, has declared her “A, B, C, D” agenda: ambulances, backlog, care, doctors and dentists.

Mr Jayawardena has picked up where she left off, naming his “E, F, G” priorities: environment, food and growth.

The second of those has become a point of debate, specifically meat consumption in the age of catastrophic climate change.

Would the Environment Secretary want to see the public eating less meat? Mr Jayawardena responded with a definitive single word: “No.”

Asked to elaborate, he went on: “I believe people should eat what they want to eat. I will continue to eat meat. My family will continue to eat meat for as long as my daughters want to eat and my son wants to eat meat.”

Mr Jayawardena said that technological changes are helping here too: “Actually, innovation again from the private sector can deliver. So we’ve already seen by changing some of the feed for cows we can actually reduce the methane output.

“And therefore people can continue to eat top quality British beef, best in the world.”

There is one environmentally friendly life change coming in the Jayawardena household, however: an electric car is soon to be purchased.

Ranil Jayawardena - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Ranil Jayawardena - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

“I’m in the market for one. Genuinely,” Mr Jayawardena said, having met a dealer this week to discuss the purchase – those he insisted the interest predated his new ministerial brief.

“Full electric. Again, the private sector has innovated and now the range of the batteries is brilliant. Yes, it is expensive as an outlay upfront. Of course, there’s all sorts of financing and whatever. But then, of course, there isn’t the fuel to pay for the other end.”

Much of Mr Jayawardena’s outlook chimes with Ms Truss’s free-marketeer principles that have defined her rise to the top of British politics.

Indeed, the pair worked closely in the Department for International Trade, where they overlapped for 18 months until last autumn.

Ms Truss, when she held that brief, had a major clash with George Eustice, the environment secretary at the time, about trade deals with Australia and New Zealand.

Mr Eustice wanted a longer fixed quota to lock out Australian beef and New Zealand lamb from flooding UK markets. Ms Truss wanted a shorter one. A compromise was struck.

So eyebrows were raised when Mr Jayawardena, by Ms Truss’s side during the Whitehall back-and-forth, was given the top environmental brief.

He rejects the suggestion such deals with agricultural exporting nations will inherently undercut UK farmers and is clearly a fulsome believer in free trade – hence the “G” of his “E, F, G”, growth.

The question over fracking

The stance appears to underpin his support for the fracking ban being lifted. The proposal has triggered fierce criticism from some environmental groups – and opportunities for shale gas companies.

Mr Jayawardena played down the environmental dangers: “Clearly, if fracking happens and people bring forward the request for licences [then] the Department for Business and Energy will look at that. And I know that they will consider the environmental concerns that many people have.”

The Conservative MP for North East Hampshire also hinted he would support fracking in his own constituency if residents did, saying the principle for such planning proposals should be “local people making local decisions”.

Mr Jayawardena, who became an MP in 2015, discovered he was the Truss team’s youngest member by another Cabinet minister.

He recalled: “One of my colleagues – shall we say at the other end of the age spectrum – was looking up to see if he was the oldest member and he discovered that he wasn’t.

“But he also, in passing, discovered that I was the youngest member. And look, that’s fine. But I’ve been in Parliament for seven years. I’ve had experience outside before that.”

Fracking - Christopher Pledger for The Telegraph
Fracking - Christopher Pledger for The Telegraph

Neither the minister nor the country has seen turmoil on the markets like this for quite some time. Does he really think Ms Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, the Chancellor, know what they are doing after the fallout of the mini-Budget?

“In Liz We Trust,” Mr Jayawardena shot back. “This was the mantra of the campaign.

“You talked about what sort of Conservative I am. Not only am I someone who believes in people and families, but I’m fundamentally a low-tax Tory.

“I want to see people’s taxes cut in order that they can choose how to spend more of their own money. And that’s what we are doing.

“By cutting the basic rate, we are helping people across this country save more of their own money and then they can spend it as they see fit.”

And what about cutting the 45 per cent top rate of income tax, a move Labour has jumped on to frame the Tories as the party of the top one per cent? Was that the right move?

“I would just gently remind your readers that for the whole of Labour’s administration bar one month, they had the top rate as we will have it at 40 pence,” he responded.

“So this is not a policy that they found so disagreeable that they had to change it when they became the Government in 1997. They, in fact, kept it.”

Low taxes, sewage-free rivers, the return of growth, fracking without environmental disaster – it is a rosy picture that will get Tories cheering. That is, if it can be delivered.