It’s time for water firms to risk losing their licences

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There comes a point when you have to realise that a so-called deterrent is having absolutely no effect. In the case of Southern Water, fines are like, well, water off its back.

Today we reveal how the firm has been taken to court and prosecuted no fewer than 40 times in the past nine years for pollution offences. Last year alone it was fined £150,000 for sewage leaks.

So has it learned its lesson and cleaned up its act? Certainly not, judging by our story about how it is being investigated after it admitted sewage was allowed into a protected nature reserve.

The untreated waste was pumped into Langstone Harbour when filtering screens failed at the pumping station at Fort Cumberland, Eastney and the water treatment works at Budds Farm in Havant.

Given Southern Water’s dismal track record, we are left to wonder exactly how hard it is trying to avoid such incidents.

This wasn’t something that was over in a matter of minutes. The spills happened for almost 19 hours from Budds Farm and more than 21 hours from Fort Cumberland. Imagine the impact on the environment in that length of time.

When Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock describes it as ‘completely unacceptable’, we have to agree with him.

The Environment Agency is considering taking yet more action against Southern Water. But if fines in the past have not had any great effect, what is to say they will do so now?

The cynics will claim that hitting big companies like Southern Water in the pocket is not the answer. However punitive the fine, it is a drop in the ocean of their annual profits. And besides, they can easily pass on the cost in increased bills for customers.

We think it’s time the government looked at introducing a system whereby an offending company could have its licence revoked. That threat would definitely concentrate minds.

The problem is that long rolling licences were given to water companies when privatisation took place. Getting out of that may prove to be the biggest challenge.