by Chris Cornell
During most of August the seawater quality here in Whitstable was unsafe. There were no-swim notices posted on our shores for the majority of our peak summer holiday month. The council put out red flags along Tankerton Beach and issued warnings against paddling and bathing because of the sewage being released into the sea.
Weeks after the Environment Agency fined Southern Water over £90m for almost 7,000 unpermitted sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015, we saw a local sewage plant break down and spill its own oil all over the waters here. The oil slick spread over 300 metres. In another instance, 250 metric tonnes of untreated sewage “spilled” from the Swalecliffe treatment plant into our sea. There are often other smaller releases of untreated sewage after even only moderate rainfall.
Last week the council officially closed its bathing season and withdrew lifeguards from Tankerton Beach. The red flags have gone — but has the risk?
The city council obviously doesn’t have any control over Southern Water, nor the Environment Agency, which licenses the firm — but it does have a responsibility for signage along the coast, public safety through our environmental health teams and safeguarding our economy, which has been rocked by the releases. Our town hit the national headlines as the harvesting of oysters was stopped after fears of norovirus contamination, with exported oysters recalled.
As you can see, the threat to our reputation as a holiday destination is very real and something needs to be done.
This October the council is due to debate the sewage problems along the coast. The Conservative group wants us to write to Southern Water expressing our disappointment and summon Southern Water for a dressing-down by councillors on the community committee — but will this really change anything? We don’t think a polite note reprimanding Southern Water for their poisoning of our waters is anything like good enough.
Here are five things Labour thinks the council can do to improve things.
- 1. Improve data for local water users
The council’s decision to put out red flags depends on two things: direct notification of spills from the Environment Agency, and its pollution control forecasting (PCF) system.
The Environment Agency notifications are issued following mechanical faults at pumping stations resulting in sewage releases. If there is any sewage released as a result of a technical failure, the agency notification lasts for 72 hours — this is considered enough time for tides to dissipate the sewage spill.
The forecasting system that the local council uses is an algorhythm using data about expected rainfall, tide times and previous performance of the sewage system to predict when rainfall will overwhelm the system and see diluted untreated waste washed out of the five combined sewage overflows (CSOs) we have in Whitstable.
These sewage outflows act as emergency discharge valves in our sewerage system, discharging untreated sewage mixed with general household wastewater and field and gutter run-off water when the system comes close to bursting, supposedly during periods of intense rainfall. Without combined sewage overflows, this wastewater mix could start backing up in our houses and gardens, so they are a vital part of our sewerage infrastructure. It is a forecast that doesn’t use the real-time information on the capacity of local tanks.
Some local swimmers use a wide range of apps to help them decide whether it is safe to swim, and a lot of these apps contradict one another and indeed contradict the council’s advice. Some swimmers use Beach Buoy, an app designed by Southern Water to provide a real-time record of their CSO outflow. The Surfers Against Sewage App scrapes data off the Environment Agency website and Beach Buoy, but can misrepresent data corrections on the Beach Buoy app sometimes, showing updates and corrections to old spills as “new” spills.
Further mixed-messaging has also confused matters locally: in June, when a lightning strike hit the Thanet pumping station and caused a spill in Margate, the red flags on our beaches went up — but this was because of a PCF forecast of rainfall, not concern about the spill reaching this far round the coast. No one was told this.
In short, Canterbury City Council needs to:
- (a) Immediately reintroduce clear web pages that bring together and explain all this data — linking it with water-quality data, which is, ultimately, the most important thing: people want to know which local beaches are safe.
- (b) Give answers as to how we still have a Blue Flag beach in Tankerton when things are so bad.
- (c) Publish online accessible weekly water-quality data.
- (d) Explain why its advice on safe bathing sometimes differs from the Environment Agency’s. While sewage discharges are terrible, the weather and tides can have a huge effect on the dispersal of sewage away from the beach. So on several occasions last summer the council took down its red flags before the Environment Agency because it had seen detailed modelling from the EA suggesting spills had dispersed before the EA could revoke its order. This needs to be explained.
- 2. Signage
While the red flags go up in Tankerton for sewage dispersals, this isn’t the case on other beaches in Kent or indeed further around the country, where lifeguards often choose to use red flags for rip tides or severe weather only. In Thanet for example, red flags never go up for CSO wastewater overspills even when they happen.
When we receive a PCF warning, the council puts up a small sign in the Tankerton lifeguard hut by 9am — but this doesn’t help people who choose to swim elsewhere, don’t see the sign or are out earlier. Sea swimming is an all-year-round activity, and only putting one small sign up is not good enough.
We believe we need to see signage across the length of Tankerton Beach and not just in the lifeguard hut. High-quality information in central locations such as the harbour would help people to be able to decide where they want to swim from. Greater use of QR codes could also help people on isolated beaches find links to information on water quality.
By making us of social-media channels and perhaps a targeted email list or targeted text/WhatsApp message group to inform people of the risk the council could get information out before the 9am.
- 3. Partnership working
The council has now decided to reconvene its seaside bathing group, an officer-led committee of council representatives from foreshore services, environmental health, engineering and representatives from the Environment Agency and Southern Water. In the next couple of months, they will do a so-called wash-up meeting, reflecting on incidents this season and seeking to improve the flow of information between them.
To ensure this committee responds to the local community we believe it should be a quarterly meeting, not limited to the summer, and enlarged to include local councillors, swimming groups, water users and affected local businesses. It is important that the passion and anger of public protest is made clear to Southern Water.
- 4. A coastal strategy
Canterbury has 16 miles of coastline, which plays a huge role in our local economy. The importance of effective management of this space has been made clear in a number of interventions the council has made over the last couple of years, including the introduction of new jet ski licensing and seaside byelaws last summer and the production of a coastal management plan in 2019 after public petitions on the amount of litter.
The plan is reviewed annually with input from the local police, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, Kent Fire & Rescue and the council, but isn’t an officially adopted strategy and, as a result, isn’t subject to scrutiny from councillors and isn’t something the public are consulted upon. The current plan contains nothing at all on water quality or sewage.
While some local authorities have been proactive in developing non-statutory coastal strategies to improve the level of consultation about statutory coastal management plans that explain coastal erosion, Canterbury has done nothing. The coast doesn’t even feature in our open spaces strategy, for fear that “factoring it in” will mean we need to build considerably more play parks than we now have.
Labour would like to see the council roll its coastal management plan into a coastal strategy that is formally adopted by the council. The new strategy would provide a means by which local environmental groups could be better involved in decisions about our coastal management and help set the priorities.
We would turn something that is largely about reacting to reputational damage into something that can proactively improve an area.
- 5. No housing without clear assurances
Whatever Southern Water does to fix the Swalecliffe pumping plant, sewage will still flow into the sea unless we see the residential sewage system detached from that relating to rainwater run-off. Ofwat (the industry regulator) has already raised concern that it believes these overflows are being increasingly used as extra housebuilding adds pressure to the largely Victorian sewage system.
In Canterbury the council recently rejected plans for 1,100 homes in Sturry and Broad Oak because officers believe the sewage infrastructure hadn’t been adequately considered. The scheme latterly received planning permission — but only once Southern Water had agreed to increasing the capacity and clearance of effectively two large septic tanks on site.
Developments in Stodmarsh, almost 4,000 homes, have effectively been shelved because there are concerns that any new housing development within the Stour catchment would damage the water quality and environment. The risk is very real.
Architectural features such as attenuation ponds, which retain surface water on site rather than wash it through the drainage system, are increasingly common but not a statutory requirement of new builds. We believe such features should be far more common in new developments.
Labour also believes that the council should immediately review its planning policy to make sure that its own actions aren’t making the situation any worse. As of 2012, new developments of over 10 houses have lost their automatic right to be added to the drainage system and now are subject to a local flood authority — in our case, Kent County Council — commenting on how sustainable each project’s drainage plans are.
Labour would go a stage further by publishing detailed sustainable drainage standards for developers as part of its planning process at a local level. It would ensure that developers provide information on what clear maintenance arrangements are in place for the lifetime of the development and provide this information before planning is granted, not before development happens.
Canterbury City Council should publish a surface-water management plan, setting out the long-term strategy for reducing the risk of surface-water flooding throughout the area. The plan would include methodology for the identification and assessment of risk and options for implementation of risk-reduction methods.
Planning decisions should utilise sustainable drainage systems (suds) unless there are practical reasons for not doing so. It will not be acceptable for surface-water run-off to enter the wastewater system.
The problem of dumping of sewage into our seas is a complicated one, requiring legislative changes at the highest level. But this doesn’t mean that local government doesn’t have a part to play. Canterbury City Council must take decisive action right now, before another year of wastewater chaos hits our area.
In October, Labour will be submitting amendments to the council’s debate on this issue. We hope our demands, listed above, and ideas are listened to and we can deliver some of our vision. This issue isn’t one divided along party lines: there are Conservatives who believe that the council can and should go further; perhaps we can work together with a bit more ambition to respond to the size and scale of the problem we face.
Chris is a youth worker, school governor, university lecturer and proud dad of three. He has lived in Whitstable for over 10 years.
Chris is a former chair and current trustee of Whitstable Umbrella, where the impact of government cuts to front-line services inspired him to get involved in local politics. He takes an active interest in local youth services, whether as founder of a local dads’ group (Who Let the Dads Out) and scout leader at Long Rock or school governor and member of the PTA executive at Swalecliffe Community Primary School. After a career working in housing and youth-work charities across the country, he now is a senior lecturer in business administration and social enterprise at two London universities.
He was elected to Canterbury City Council in 2019 as a representative for Gorrell ward.
Chris sits on the Whitstable Forum, Whitstable Harbour Board, community and governance committees in addition to full council.
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