Barricade the Beach Protest


SOS Whitstable


Gerry Atkinson

Following are a transcription of the speeches made by members of SOS Whitstable at the Barricade the Beach protest on Sunday 9th October 2022 to the estimated 1,500 participants. All photographs by Gerry Atkinson (click on images to enlarge).


Good afternoon everybody and welcome to the 2022 SOS Whitstable protest against Southern Water.

It’s been a year since our last protest here, twelve months of tireless campaigning from us in SOS Whitstable as well as the many water quality campaign groups around the country.

And although progress has been made in some areas, it’s still nowhere near enough. In fact the last year has opened our eyes to the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.

Perhaps naively at out first protest we believed that we were just waging war on Southern Water polluting our beautiful coastline. But we’ve learnt that the opposition between us and a resolution to this crisis is much bigger and more daunting than that.

Because the problem isn’t just greedy, profit driven companies, owned by unscrupulous overseas investment banks, sacrificing performance and responsibility to scrape every last penny they can from us.

No, this is also about underfunded and unmotivated regulatory bodies failing to hold the water companies to account. Just a week ago, leaked reports proved that the Environment Agency knew that raw sewage was being dumped in our Great British seas and rivers a decade ago and they didn’t act.

However the regulatory bodies need to be held to account themselves, which brings us to the other villains, the government. At the end of October last year, SOS Whitstable campaigned for an amendment to the Environment Act, which would have forced water companies to clean up their act.

Sadly, when the amendment reached the House of Commons it was voted down by 265 votes to 202. You might not be surprised to hear that the 265 votes against all came from members of the Conservative Party, with only twenty two Tory MPs brave enough to vote against the party line.

In the days and weeks that followed, public outrage grew and the offending MPs scrambled to justify their actions.

They claimed that supporting the amendment would have required an immediate end to all Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) releases and caused sewage to back up into people’s homes. This is a lie.

They claimed that the cost of fixing the infrastructure and putting an end to sewage pollution once and for all would cost £650 billion. Yet they never explained the figure and independent experts argued that the real cost would be more like £15 billion. Once again, they lied.

Finally, in August, they released their anticipated sewage reduction plan and we were shocked to discover that not only had they failed to clamp down on water companies, they actually made it easier for them to pollute, green-lighting 28 years more destruction to our coast.

This isn’t a party who are just inactive when it comes to sewage pollution, this is a party who are obstructive. A party associated with the colour blue, but that blue has now been tainted by a slightly murky brown.


However the failure of the government and the regulatory bodies should not excuse the water companies themselves, which brings us to Southern Water.

Last year when they received a record £90m fine, the outgoing Chief Executive Ian McAuley apologised and promised that the company would change. Yet for 2021 alone he pocketed an astonishing £1 million, over half of which were bonuses.

Do you think it is right that somebody should receive over half a million pounds in performance bonuses for overseeing the biggest criminality in the history of an industry?

Do you think it is right that somebody should receive over half a million pounds in bonuses following a year in which, in Tankerton alone, they released over a thousand hours of sewage into the sea?

We don’t either. This is a company that, despite promising change, ruined the traditional Boxing Day dip last year by pumping 45 hours of sewage into the sea between Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

It’s a company who, just like our government, are trying to pull the wool over our eyes by claiming that CSO releases are typically 95% rainwater.

The steady flow of people who contact us to say that they, or their families and even their pets have become ill after swimming might disagree with that attempt to play down the seriousness of sewage pollution.

And yet, despite a clear connection between sewage pollution and illness, despite Southern Water promising to be more open and transparent, just three weeks ago they updated the Beachbuoy monitoring app to reduce the number of visible red alerts which appear when there is a release.

They claim that this update will “take into account the impact a release has on local bathing water” yet their own website acknowledges that they do not currently have the technology to judge whether it is safe to swim or not.

In reality all they have done is cover their tracks, improve the optics of their map to avoid media scrutiny and hoodwink local swimmers into risking our health during sewage releases.

Twenty of the last twenty five releases in Tankerton have been classified as “non-impacting” and therefore wouldn’t display on their map. This includes three separate releases in over four hours.

It’s misleading. It’s irresponsible. It’s dangerous and it’s got to stop.


That brings us to our protest and the reason we’re here today. We’re here because we love the sea and because Southern Water think it’s ok to put us at risk when we swim. And because, after they do it, they are trying to hide it.

We’re here because the Environment Agency aren’t fit for purpose. We’re here because the government prioritise corporate interest over things that really matter to communities like ours.

So, if the companies, the regulators and the government won’t protect us then we have to make a stand. And that is why today we’re going to barricade the beach.

In a few moments, under the guidance of our fantastic stewards, we’d like you to form lines, shoulder to shoulder with each other along three stretches of beach. Once one line is complete, start a new one behind it.

As you line up, we will be transforming the beach on front of you into a temporary crime scene, to reflect the fact that Southern Water’s £90m fine was for the worst environmental crimes in the history of the Environment Agency.


Since the privatisation of the water industry in 1989, the sewage pollution crisis has spiralled out of control and it’s getting worse.

In the five years between 2016 and 2021, sewage pollution in England increased 2,500% from the same period beforehand.

Meanwhile, last year the CEOs of the water industry paid themselves £25 million in bonuses, a 20% increase from the year before. This, on top of the £72 billion paid in dividends to shareholders since the industry was sold off.

Performance is getting worse as profits get better, yet apparently there’s no money to fix this issue. We say that isn’t good enough.

We believe that privatisation has failed and that’s why we started a petition on calling for the renationalisation of the water industry. . Since the petition went live, it’s gained an astonishing 194,000 signatures, making it one of the most successful in UK history.

If you haven’t already signed and shared, and you agree with us, please do so today.


In August this year a new development in the sewage scandal came to light. It was revealed by Channel 4 Dispatches that one in eight sewage pipe sensors around the United Kingdom were either faulty or not installed at all.

This is the technology responsible for alerting us when sewage releases are occurring, yet hundreds of them across the entire country aren’t operational. This means that the already shocking statistics of sewage going into our waterways, may not be anywhere near the actual, grim, overall picture.

Tankerton beach blocked off and declared ‘crime scene’ in Southern Water sewage dump protest: ITV News report


SOS Whitstable:

Gerry Atkinson

Training as a photojournalist, I started recording  political protests in London in the 1990’s. I spent 18 months volunteering with CWERC, an NGO in the Philippines, recording the lives of indigenous women for an audio-visual ‘Weaving our own Dreams’. I moved on to New Zealand for 4 years working for newspapers. On returning to London I organised a collaborative project with people with mental health problems to produce ‘Through the Lens’ documentary photography exhibition.

My MA research in 2010 resulted in a book ‘Shades of Other Lives’, a series of windows at night, developed in reference to Labour Party comments that “We are all middle class now”. In 2011-2012, I spent 10 months in Greece, Cape Town and New Zealand working on documentary projects. Recent community projects are ‘Our Work of Art 2018-2019’. I have an NUJ Photojournalist Press Card and am currently discussing new ideas and collaborations.

I studied at Leicester University, the London College of Communication and the University for the Creative Arts.

I have extensive solo and group exhibition experience including the British Museums landmark exhibition “Rice and Life in the Philippines”.  My work has been published in newspapers, books and magazines and is held in private collections.

Photo by Glen London

To see more of Gerry’s work, please go to:

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