The majority of UK voters believe that water company executives whose firms pollute rivers should be criminally prosecuted, a new poll reveals.

At present, companies can be held liable for pollution, but individual executives are rarely targeted. In a survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, 72 per cent of respondents backed the idea of prosecuting bosses for river pollution, while just 5 per cent opposed the idea.

Of those surveyed, 45 per cent were dissatisfied with the current condition of the UK’s waterways. A majority of respondents argued that water companies, governments and regulators should all be held accountable for cleaning up rivers. The survey interviewed 1,500 people in Great Britain.

Campaigners and environmental experts have welcomed the poll results, with Feargal Sharkey, a campaigner, stating that “these polluters need to be held accountable, they need to be held responsible”. Charles Watson, chairman of River Action, said that the poll demonstrated the “huge public interest” in the issue of polluted rivers.

In the majority of cases, discharging sewage into waterways is legal. Water companies have permits for each treatment works, which allow them to discharge sewage if the amount of water entering the system exceeds the plant’s ability to cope. Any discharges outside these parameters are illegal.

Prosecutions can be brought for permit breaches, but are expensive and lengthy, so the Environment Agency often relies on civil penalties. Criminal charges may be pursued for serious breaches, but have resulted in fines for water companies, rather than jail sentences for executives.

Last week the Gazette reported on Angela Jones, who brought her campaign to save the Wye to Westminster, speaking at a cross-party Welsh Affairs Committee. Jones addressed the devastating effects on the Wye due to intensive poultry farming and sewage, and called for immediate government action. She criticised regulators for taking a complacent approach towards measuring the quality of the river, and attended a scrutiny of Natural Resource Wales to raise her concerns about their appalling enforcement record against polluters.