You can usually smell Swalecliffe sewage treatment works long before you see it, and it regularly discharges untreated human waste into the popular bathing waters of Whitstable, Tankerton and Herne Bay — even during summer holidays, when children can be seen swimming and paddling nearby.
Judging by the heated atmosphere at the public meeting held at St John’s Hall in Swalecliffe by local MP Rosie Duffield on August 2, anger and frustration is growing about the scandalous long-term sewage pollution of local waters by Southern Water, which runs the plant.
“Many of our members say they are now just too scared to go into the water,” said Robin Bartlett of the Bubbletit Bluetits, a group of local sea-swimmers that boasts more than 700 members, many of whom post online about their fear of faecal pathogens.
Bartlett was just one of the 50 or so water users, campaigners and residents at the meeting, all exasperated by decades of sewage pollution. They raised concerns about sightings of hundreds of dead fish, foul odours forcing residents indoors and untreated sewage and soiled sanitary products seen floating in the local bathing waters. Perhaps the most shocking testimony was from a woman living near the Swalecliffe works who calmly explained how it was sometimes necessary for her neighbours to sweep the footbridge over the local brook clean so that their children could walk to school in the mornings without treading in human excrement.
The recent £90 million fine imposed on Southern Water for illegally pumping 21 billion litres of raw sewage into protected waters in the Swale estuary and the Solent in 2010-15 underlines the need for legal protection from a privatised water industry that Caroline Lucas MP described as “out of control” and a company that the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage says is guilty of “corporate vandalism”.
After the fine imposition on July 9, chief executive of Southern Water Ian McAulay said:
“I am passionately committed to the environment. We have changed the way we operate.” But all the evidence suggests Southern Water’s sewage pollution of local waters is only getting worse — much worse.
Not Good Enough
Data published by Southern Water shows there were almost 5,000 (4,965) sewage discharges along the Kent coast in 2020, an increase of more than 113 per cent since 2017, when Mr McAulay joined the company.
In its environmental performance report into the water and sewerage companies in England in 2020, published on July 13, the Environment Agency concluded that performance is not good enough, and marked out Southern Water and South West Water, which they judged were “still significantly underperforming in several areas”.
Critics claim privately owned water companies simply build fines for illegal pollution into their business model and pass the costs onto customers — their profits go to corporate shareholders who own the business and not to fund much-needed infrastructure improvements.
According to Southern Water’s website, the Greensands consortium, which owns the company, comprises “a mixture of infrastructure investment funds, pension funds and private equity”. These funds are managed or represented by giant investment corporates including JP Morgan Asset Management, UBS Asset Management, Hermes Investment Management and Whitehelm Capital. The wealthiest man in Hong Kong, Li Ka Shing, also owns about 4 per cent of Greensands.
It seems the people of Whitstable are paying Southern Water to dump raw sewage into local waters so that the company can make huge profits that enable very rich people to get even richer.
In its last financial year, Southern Water declared an operating profit of £212.3 million, and it was widely reported that chief executive Ian McAulay received a £538,100 bonus despite the company reporting its own environmental performance as “unacceptable”.
Those families in Swalecliffe who are reduced to cleaning human excrement off a bridge before their kids go to school might like to know that Mr McAulay’s total remuneration for 2019-20 was reported to be in excess of £1.1 million.
No wonder some claim this is nothing more than a criminal racket sanctioned by government, and some campaigners such as Marinet are calling for urgent changes to the law to be included in the new environment bill.
At least Southern Water had the decency to send two senior executives to the public meeting to receive some well-deserved flak from its customers, which is more than the Environment Agency did. This public body, funded by the taxpayer to regulate and enforce rules on water companies, declined to turn up. Unfortunately, its budgets have been cut by 60 per cent over recent years, and prosecutions have reduced by 86 per cent between 2000 and 2019.
Local anti-pollution campaigner Andy Taylor recalled the many times his calls to the Environment Agency hotline resulted in him being put through to a call centre in Gateshead before being told nothing could be done. He thinks the Environment Agency’s relationship with Southern Water is “too cozy”. One of the Southern Water executives who attended the meeting, director of environment & corporate affairs Dr Toby Willison, caused outrage in November last year when he quit the Environment Agency to join the company he was supposed to be regulating.
Both Dr Willison and his colleague, director of asset management & strategy Lawrence Gosden, offered apologies, fielded questions with admirable calm and professional polish and offered several warm assurances about improvements and even a planned £16 million investment at the Swalecliffe works, which they said was already performing much better.
They did not mention that Southern Water’s own online sewage discharge notification system called Beachbuoy indicated that over the busy holiday weekend before the meeting, untreated sewage had been discharged from five outfalls in Whitstable and Herne Bay for a combined duration of 25 hours. Hardly an obvious sign of improvement.
Untreated sewage includes faeces and urine, and contains bacteria, viruses (including coronavirus), toxins, pharmaceutical residues and microplastics. It causes the eutrophication of the waters — an excess of nutrients which can cause marine life to die.
It makes people sick, too. Even primitive people understood this; yet in 2021, thanks to Southern Water, our families are still swimming in it.
Perhaps it is over cynical to dismiss the assurances from Mr Gosden and Dr Willison as part of a PR and public-engagement pantomime.
There is no harm in hoping for the best, of course.
However, all the evidence suggests that, until there are radical changes to the law and proper regulation, Southern Water will just keep going through the motions and carry on putting the shit into Whitstable, with impunity.
Make reducing sewage pollution a legal requirement in the UK.
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About Stuart Heaver
Former naval officer and entrepreneur, Stuart Heaver was born and educated in Kent and moved to Whitstable some twenty years ago. He is a full-time freelance writer and journalist who specialises in maritime issues and these days splits his time between Whitstable and Hong Kong.
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