The tide is turning on sewage pollution

Words by Ed Acteson

Photographs by Andrew Hastings

A dramatic low mist enveloped the coast, stubbornly resisting the blazing October sun. I watched in awe as a red horde of a thousand Whitstable natives and coastal residents snaked along the promenade, banging their drums and hoisting placards.

I’d been terrified all morning at the prospect of addressing the crowd but, as they approached, I felt strangely serene. Out of my comfort zone, of course, yet this has become typical for an SOS Whitstable committee member in our ongoing duel with Southern Water.

We are a group of keen environmentalists but certainly not full-time activists. Indeed, for many of us it’s our first involvement in such a cause. The fight against sewage pollution is huge and perhaps our greatest challenge has been fitting it around careers, families, businesses and social lives.

Despite the limitation of time, the progress we have been able to make in just nine weeks has staggered us all and simply couldn’t have been achieved without huge community support. No official count was made but we believe that over 1000 people attended the protest, a remarkable turnout for a town of just 32,000 residents.

Yet should we be surprised? It is, after all, in everybody’s interests to back this campaign. A polluted sea doesn’t just affect beach-goers but the local economy as well. Fishing, hospitality and tourism are directly affected and less visitors, of course, impacts the entire high street in what is a very seasonal town.

As a group of sea-swimmers, it is fair to say that our initial motivation in this battle was to safeguard our health in the water but, as we have grown into the issue, we have come to realise that what we are trying to achieve will ultimately help the entire community.

Although the bulk of our ire has been directed at Southern Water, the sad truth is that they are a mere symptom of a wider disease. An inevitable consequence of the privatisation of the sewage industry where profits were bound to eventually trump performance.

Can you really ask a private company such as Southern Water to put morals before shareholders? You can try but you’ll be met with non-committal responses, vague pledges and the sort of misdirection which would make a politician blush.

Ultimately, however many protests we organise, nothing will profoundly change until the Environment Agency and the wider government make it mandatory.

Clearly the £90m fine that Southern Water received in July was not enough of a deterrent and why would it be? Over a five-year period in which they illegally pumped enough sewage into our waterways to fill Wembley Stadium 15+ times over, the fine handed down averaged £18m per year.

Yet in two recent financial years (2018-19, 2019-20), Southern Water made a combined profit of £469 million. The simple truth is that it is far cheaper for them to pay the fines than it is to fix the issue and unless the punishments get more severe and their license comes under threat, nothing will change.

The United Kingdom has a Victorian sewage system, which was built when the population was less than half of the 67 million who live on these shores today. It was not designed to cope with this many people, nor was it supposed to deal with a changing climate, which will seemingly bring increasingly intense rainfall in the years to come.

As the relentless march of new housing continues across the south east, more and more pressure will be piled onto this creaking infrastructure. The situation is going to get worse before it gets better.

We urgently need huge investment to upgrade the entire sewage network as well as the collective embracing of modern technologies, such as AI, to better regulate and manage these challenges in the future.

So what do we do? What’s next? The good news is that we have an opportunity to strike a significant blow at the heart of corporate water greed within the coming days.

As some of you may know, we successfully campaigned for the House of Lords to support Amendment 60 to the Environment Bill in September, which would place a legal obligation on water companies across the UK to demonstrate yearly improvements to their performance.

The House of Lords voted in favour by 184-147, yet it didn’t escape our attention that almost the entire opposition arrived from Conservative peers, with only a handful supporting the amendment.

On Wednesday October 20th, Amendment 60 moves to the House of Commons where it faces its day of reckoning. The MPs will decide the fate of Amendment 60 with another vote and, if it is passed again, it will receive royal assent.

However, this time the Conservative Party holds an 80 seat majority so, if they decide to oppose it en masse again, it will be torpedoed. It’s not going to be easy but we’re not ready to throw in the towel just yet.

Although we, in the Canterbury district, have a Labour MP, Rosie Duffield is the only non-Conservative in Kent. Exactly why we need to convince the Conservative Party to support this amendment is open to debate but it’s clear that it is the challenge that lies ahead.

We have proved that public support is behind reducing sewage pollution and, as far as we are concerned, it is time that some of these elected and very well remunerated politicians begin representing the constituents who voted for them, rather than their political party, for a change.

It is vital that as many of you as possible write to your MP, or any MP, asking them to vote in favour of Amendment 60. Then we need you to ask your friends and family around the country, who might be living in Conservative constituencies, to do the same.

If any MP replies stating that they will not vote in favour of this amendment, please let us know and we will publicly ask them what possible reason they might have for their stance.

This isn’t going to be easy but even if we lose in the Commons next Wednesday, SOS Whitstable and the growing number of anti-sewage groups around the country won’t give up this fight.

The secret is out now and, whether Southern Water and other water companies like it or not, the tide is turning on sewage pollution.

SOS Whitstable on social media:
Petition update
Ask a Tory to end Sewage Pollution:
How to contact your MP:
Take back our water:
Our water system is ‘profoundly unsustainable’
Water is a precious commodity, says Natalie Bennett, it should be treated as such.

Next Protest


Ed Acteson is a member of the campaign group, SOS Whitstable, a sports writer and editor who runs a football blog. Raised in Herne Bay before moving to Whitstable, Ed has been swimming in the North Kent sea his entire life but only began to brave the winter water during lockdown, after joining the Bubbletit Bluetits swimming group. A staunch advocate of the physical and mental benefits of wild swimming, he believes that our rivers and oceans should be protected at all costs.

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