Photo by Gerry Atkinson
A speech given by Julie Wassmer at SOS Whitstable’s Barricade the Beach protest on October 9th 2022
When it comes to polluting our environment, Southern Water is a serious serial offender.
How do we deal with that? Last year we came together to lobby politicians to support an important amendment to the Environment Act that would have put pressure on water companies like Southern Water to clean up their act. This failed, and without political will, the companies were effectively let off the hook by the government—but not by us.
Other protests continued to take place throughout 2021, and after I had spoken at one staged in Margate, a resident came up to me and asked: “Why don’t we just stop paying Southern Water?”
Good question—and one I put to Robin from SOS Whitstable that same day, who explained that the group felt unable to promote an action which might result in people suffering serious financial consequences in the form of poor credit ratings and county court judgements.
I totally understood this. I still do—but I also felt it could be worthwhile for a small nucleus of people to embark on this action if they were willing to face those consequences. In doing so, I felt we could further highlight this important issue and shame Southern Water for their atrocious record—and I’ve always felt that effective campaigning involves lots of varied actions; like throwing spaghetti up against a wall, sooner or later if you throw enough, some is bound to stick.
So, only a few weeks after last year’s protest, three other Whitstable residents and I began an independent protest by withholding our payments to Southern Water.
In this part of Kent South East Water are responsible for supplying water but they also take care of billing for Southern Water—who have responsibility for wastewater, so we wrote to both companies and explained that we would continue paying South East for water provision but were refusing to pay to Southern for unacceptable wastewater services.
The three other residents consisted of my friend, Emma Gibson, the former deputy campaigns manager of Greenpeace, Emma’s partner Steve Wheeler, who is an artist and writer, and Ashley Clark, a local councillor.
In my own letter to both companies, I explained that I wasn’t prepared to reward a criminal company and since I have no consumer choice in being able to switch to another company, I would be withholding any future payments to Southern Water.
I cited The Consumer Rights Act 2015 which states that “services must be provided with reasonable care and skill” and I explained that as I understood I could request a price reduction, I was willing to begin negotiation by offering one single penny—which many would consider over-generous in the circumstances.
Three days after this news went out in the local press, Bob Geldof, who lives in neighbouring Faversham spoke out a meeting in support of our boycott and in an angry tirade against Southern Water which began: “Don’t pay your water bills to Southern Water, they can **** off,” ending with “God bless those people of Whitstable. I’m straight there to join them, in fact I’ll join them immediately.” I spoke to Bob a week later who repeated his support for our action which led to press stories in both the Times and the Guardian newspapers.
I had always been sure that having Ashley Clark on board with this action would also be helpful because as a Conservative councillor who was willing to speak out against the lack of political will from the Tory government on this issue, he was far more likely to gain attention than figures from opposition parties for whom that would be expected. And so it proved—with even the sister paper of the Times, Le Monde, interviewing Ashley and reporting our boycott in France.
Ashley Clark is also a former police officer so when he was issued with a final demand for payment he wrote back to the company with the following reminder:
“The making of an unwarranted demand with menaces is a criminal offence.”
He stated that he had been before the Crown Court on many occasions “but always as a witness and never like Southern Water, as a defendant.” Finally, he warned that “…if you send debt collectors round to my house I will have you arrested. I owe you nothing.”
Interestingly, rather than receive a further final demand, Councillor Clark then received the offer of a 50% discount on the sum he owed. Meanwhile, another boycotter, based in Walmer, who had joined us in this action, was offered a 100% discount. However, both offers were made by phone calls with nothing in writing, so, in order to confirm that the offers had indeed been made, Ashley Clark accepted his 50% discount with formal correspondence to the CEO of South East Water, David Hinton, and once his cheque was accepted I alerted the Guardian and the Times who reported this along with a quote from me that “In the interest of fairness, Southern Water should now offer a 100% discount to all 4.7 million of their wastewater customers.”
That was back in February. Since then, many more people have joined us in withholding payment to Southern Water, despite the fact that our action has never been actively promoted (except by Bob Geldof) only reported, and I have always made very clear to those who contact me for information that withholding payment can have serious consequences.
Emma and I had meetings with the top law firms, who offer free advice to environmental campaigners, and they had explained that water companies like Southern are not subject to the Consumer Act but in effect protected by statutory law. So in withholding payment as we are, we do potentially face serious consequences which could include the following:
- A 3rd party debt order could be applied for to enable a court to remove the funds directly from our bank accounts.
- We may have to attend court to give details of our finances
- An ‘attachment of earnings’ order could be applied for – whereby our employer deducts an amount from pay each month and pays it to the debt collection agency.
- Bailiffs could be sent to our homes to seize goods equal to the value of the debt. The costs of their visit(s) would be added to our debt
- Any court appearance would be in a lower court, at county court level, so we would not be able to deploy campaign arguments to say that we are refusing to pay because of Southern Water’s activities.
Nevertheless, in the face of all that, fellow Southern Water customers have continued to join us from all over the South East—and almost every week I’m contacted by people from Devon, Cornwall, Sussex and the Isle of Wight.
I send updates and I offer what help and information I can and together for the past year we have successfully resisted all threats made by Southern Water.
Finally, I can tell you—we are a diverse group. Here in Whitstable our local boycotters include Liz Foreman—a yoga teacher, (who has decorated the outside of her home in with placards and helpful links to news stories about the boycott).
Liz could not make it to the Barricade the Beach protest but she did send her umbrella!
Meanwhile, former magistrate, Chris Stanley, offered me his own statement to read today:
“In my 80th year I get great pleasure from regularly swimming in the sea but I have had to miss healthy exercise many times this year as Southern Water has regularly dumped sewage into Whitstable Bay. I will not pay until the company stops the disgraceful pollution of our sea.”
My own motto remains: “Can pay. Won’t pay. Until Southern Water cleans up its act.”
Let’s fight on—together we will win.
Since making this speech, I have been contacted by many more Southern Water customers who also now plan to join the payment boycott.
Some have said they will be unable to continue a payment boycott to the bitter end, and thereby risk potentially serious debt recovery actions from Southern Water, but they are going to cancel their direct debits and withhold payment for as long as possible before finally clearing the debt owed with a one off single payment as this will disrupt the company’s financial flow and send a clear message to Southern Water that their sewage pollution of our seas and waterways is unacceptable.
Julie Wassmer is a Whitstable-based author, TV writer and environmental campaigner.
She has successfully fought a number of environmental issues, including fracking in Kent and tree clearances by Network Rail. Her Whitstable Pearl crime novels are now a major TV series, starring Kerry Godliman, with a 2nd season expected to air in November 2022.
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