Stuart Heaver

Paddling children, carefully avoiding floating turds and used sanitary products, and swimmers involuntarily gagging in the sea, are unfortunate reminders that sewage pollution is still endemic in the bathing waters of Whitstable and many other coastal towns in the UK.

The government-sanctioned sewage pollution racket which allows privatised businesses to make multi-million pound profits by charging customers to dump their human waste in the sea, is still alive and well and polluting a beach near you. It poses a risk to children’s health, devastates local marine environments and threatens the local economy. It stinks and what’s more, everyone knows it stinks.

Over recent months it has been heartening to support the brilliant campaign run by SOS Whitstable* which combined forces and collaborated with other sewage pollution campaigners and a small number of NGOs like Marinet and Surfers Against Sewage. They have given a voice to a national sense of outrage and disgust. More importantly, they have mobilised public support for sensible amendments to the Environment Bill proposed in House of Lords by the Duke of Wellington which would put a binding legal duty on water companies to clean up their act.

Thanks to the efforts of groups like SOS Whitstable, thousands of citizens wrote to MPs and peers; a petition backing the Duke of Wellington’s amendments obtained more than 130,000 signatures; marches and protests were staged around the coast; and multiple social media campaigns pushed the sewage pollution scandal onto the front page of local and national newspapers. It has been a really heroic effort and a great campaign but so far, it has to be said — it has achieved nothing.

On Tankerton beach where SOS Whitstable staged a noisy and well attended protest on 9 October, sewage pollution is actually worse than ever. This beach is popular with holiday-makers, swimmers, paddlers and sailors. It’s also adjacent to the local oyster fishery. According to Southern Water’s own data there were more than 83 hours of continuous sewage discharges there in October alone.

The government response to the public outcry has been mostly intransigence, hostile resistance and some ridiculous estimates of the cost to upgrade the neglected sewage infrastructure.

Then, on 26 October, victory seemed in sight when the government announced that the Environment Bill will be further strengthened with an extra amendment. They say this will see a duty enshrined in law to ensure water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows. It was a direct response to the brewing media storm and the strength of public backing for the Duke’s proposed amendment.

However, instead of a victory, veteran campaigners suspect a stitch up.

For some reason, the government has not simply adopted the Duke’s detailed amendment which had widespread cross-party and public support but will announce their own version. The wording of the new amendment has still not been published and MPs are due to vote on it in only four days’ time (8 November). This makes campaigners very suspicious. The exact wording is critical but the government is keeping it a secret.

Insiders fear the recent announcement was only designed to ensure the noisy sewage pollution campaign fizzled out during the COP 26 press orchestration. They predict it will re-emerge on 8th November, the day before the November parliamentary recess, as little more than some warm rhetoric and fuzzy assurances.

Based on bitter experience, many fear MPs will continue to prioritise the financial interests of multinational corporations over the public health of their constituents. Even sympathetic MPs will be reluctant to oppose their own government over an issue of semantics.

The government will get away with the stitch up, unless lots of individuals write to MPs now, demanding that the Duke of Wellington’s amendments are accepted in full and not watered-down to meaningless assurances which only protect the water companies and their shareholders. If not, the efforts of thousands of citizens may be reduced to some waffle in a Bill that no-one will ever read.

And our children will all be condemned to paddle in poo.

SOS Whitstable on social media:
How to contact your MP:

Petition update: Make reducing sewage pollution a legal requirement in the UK. Anti-sewage measures unveiled. COP26 or cop out?

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.

South China Morning PostThe IndependentHong Kong Free Press Who.What.Why. Byline TimesFragrant HarbourNew Lens InternationalDaily Telegraph Post MagazineSailing Today

*For avoidance of confusion, Stuart is in contact with SOS Whitstable but is not a member and does not represent them.

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