By Ben Cornwell and Suzanne Kelly

A few weeks ago, at Bulverhythe beach, all you would have heard were the calming sounds of the sea breeze, the pebbles clattering under people’s feet and the squawking seagulls. However, in recent days those sounds have been overpowered by the deafening noise of Southern Water machinery working to clear the sewage amongst the beach huts. With pipe leaks and polluted seawater, Southern Water has been busy recently.

Coastal clean up 

As we reported in the last Hastings Independent, Southern Water pledged to apply themselves to repairing the leak at Bulverhythe “around the clock”. We visited the area on 6th August to investigate progress. A clean-up crew was using a digger to scoop out a fenced-off area near the cycle path and beach huts. We spoke to one person who did not want to be identified but told us he was impressed with how the company had handled the problem, saying it was done swiftly and completely. 

A crack in the system

However this does not negate the seriousness of the bigger picture. Following the Environment Agency’s largest-ever investigation, Southern was found guilty of criminal activity over a prolonged period and fined £90 million in July. Appearing at Canterbury Crown Court, the company admitted 6,971 illegal spills from 17 sites in Hampshire, Kent and West Sussex between 2010 and 2015. 

CREDIT: Dave Young

The court heard raw sewage had been diverted away from treatment works and into the environment, allowing the company to avoid financial penalties and the costs of upkeep and upgrades.

This prosecution comes after Southern Water had already agreed in 2019 to pay £126m in fines and payments to customers for “serious failures” in its sewage treatment works and deliberately misreporting its performance. 

And the system is certainly in need of upgrading. Much of the UK’s network of combined sewer overflow (CSO) pipes date back to Victorian times. The pipes deal with the discharge of both stormwater and domestic sewage wastewater during heavy storms. When wastewater exceeds the system’s capacity, storm and sewage water is directed into CSOs, which flow into streams, rivers and the sea, through outfall pipes. CSOs provide a failsafe during heavy storms to stop household domestic sewage waste and stormwater backing up through the system and flooding people’s homes and streets.

South Coast Sirens

However, with more houses being built and our population growing every year, there is additional pressure being put onto the current system in place to the point where there needs to be very little rainfall for the sewer capacity to overflow. The sewage spills are going to get increasingly worse in the years to come unless there is substantial investment in upgrading the infrastructure.

Money Talks

This week Australian investment bank Macquarie bought a majority stake in Southern Water for more than £1 billion. This investment comes four and a half years after the bank sold its shares in Britain’s biggest water supplier, Thames Water, back in 2017. Macquarie sold its final stake in the company for an estimated £1.35bn, just months before the Environment Agency prosecuted the water company for extensive pollution in the Thames and other rivers between 2012 and 2014. At the time, the £20m fine was a record for this kind of offence.

The decision to allow Macquarie to invest in the UK water industry again has been questioned by many, as there are concerns that history could repeat itself. GMB, the union for water workers, has criticised the sale of Southern Water to foreign investors and are now campaigning to nationalise the water industry.

GMB National Officer Gary Carter said: “Whilst far away private owners have pocketed billions of pounds that should have been used to maintain our water systems; our beaches, rivers and oceans have been poisoned to give them a few extra quid.

CREDIT: Dave Young

“Swapping private owners won’t bring the investment and commitment to the environment required to flush out the problems that face our water system.

“The waters in the South East need cleaning up and, it’s time to bring back the tap into public ownership, where the needs of local customers and Southern Waters employees are put first.”

With regular sewage spills and record-breaking fines over the last year, it may come as a shock that the CEO of Southern Water, Ian McAulay, received a £500k bonus on top of his yearly salary, meaning his total remuneration exceeded £1 million. The company believe there have been profound changes since Mr McAulay became CEO in 2017 and added that the chief executive was under a two-year pay freeze and bonus reduction, following his own request.

A Siren’s call for change

Wild swimmer and new resident Mary Jane Baxter was shocked to learn of the pollution “… for three days now we’ve been unable to swim along the coast here from Hastings all the way up to Bexhill and beyond due to pollution warnings. St Leonards might have a three-star beach but what’s the point if the water quality’s so poor you can’t go in? … There have been several ‘no swimming’ days in just a handful of weeks. It’s disgusting.”

South Coast Sirens, a pressure group set up by regular sea users in the Sussex area is campaigning for clean bathing water along the South Coast. Independent sea-water quality testing will begin in the Brighton area thanks to generous local support for the group’s crowdfunding appeal. There are now more than 800 ‘Sirens’, their end goal is to stop sewage releases into the sea all around the South Coast, to get Southern Water to commit to stopping sewage outlets, and invest in upgrades to their outdated system.

Group member Jo Godden said: “Along our coast, this is happening all the time … most swimmers don’t even go out when it’s raining, and we certainly can’t put our heads under the water if we do. I think enjoyment of our coastline is a human right … When you are driving a company to make a profit rather than providing a service, something has gone disastrously wrong. We feel that to have clean water in the 21st century is not asking too much, especially when we pay for it so heavily.”

Last year, the UK was ranked as one of the worst European countries for its bathing water quality following a survey by the European Environment Agency.

Helping your local shores

The Environment Agency has introduced a new campaign this summer to urge people to become #WaterWarriors and make the right choices when visiting beaches, rivers and lakes. If you would like to protect your shores, here are some ways you can help.

• Check the Environment Agency’s Swimfo website before going swimming. The website provides instant, easy access to information on over 400 bathing waters in England, including the latest water quality classification.

• Only flush the 3Ps – pee, poo and paper.

• Never pour fats and oils down the sink as these can cause blockages known as fatbergs in drains and sewers.

• Never flush wet wipes and sanitary products down the loo. 

• Always take your rubbish away from the beach. 

• Always bag and bin your dog’s poo. 

• Never pour waste liquids or throw litter down surface water drains.

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