Julie Wassmer (right) with sewage protester Hayley Yoga
“Can pay – won’t pay – until Southern Water cleans up its act”
In July 2021, Southern Water was fined £90 million for criminal charges relating to illegal dumping of raw sewage into protected waters. The case, and the record fine, soon became high profile news but Southern Water is, in fact, a serious and serial offender having previously incurred penalties of over £120 million following an investigation by Ofwat in 2019. It therefore seemed unlikely that the fine would succeed in having any deterrent effect on the company, so in October last year I decided to take independent action by withholding my payments to Southern Water.
In Whitstable, Southern Water is responsible for wastewater while South East Water provides fresh water and also bills customers for both services. Having spoken at protest events organised by the local campaign group, SOS-Whitstable, I was well aware that Southern Water’s sewage pollution had affected local swimmers and that there had been reported cases of stomach and ear infections. Southern Water may have become adept in responding to criticism but the bottom line is: it cannot be right for residents to have to sweep sewage from their streets and doorsteps while families have been forced from our beaches and out of the sea. Clearly there are also implications for local businesses connected to Whitstable’s historic oyster trade – as well as those involved in tourism and water sports, so, together with three other concerned Whitstable residents; Emma Gibson, her partner Steve Wheeler and a Conservative councillor, Ashley Clark, I duly informed South East Water that I would continue to pay only for the provision of water while withholding payment to Southern Water due to the company’s unacceptable record on sewage dumping.
Emma and I took legal advice on our position and decided against promoting this action widely in case any debt recovery action affected vulnerable residents. However, as a small group of committed individuals we agreed to accept the consequences in order to make a stand against Southern Water’s environmental pollution.
Support from Bob Geldof
Once local newspapers had reported our action in November last year, Bob Geldof then offered us his support when he spoke out at a meeting in Faversham, saying:
“Don’t pay your water bills to Southern Water, they can “**** off”. I can’t understand why this giant utility company can’t be held to account. Why aren’t the board liable? Why aren’t they going to jail? I really don’t understand it. They are doing vile harm to adults and children who go swimming, and vile harm to livelihoods. How are they allowed to do this? I’m absolutely certain that if there was a one-year minimum custodial sentence for them, then it would stop. God bless those people of Whitstable. I’ll be right there to join them, in fact I’ll join them immediately.”
I spoke to Bob a week later and thanked him for his comments which clearly had helped to raise more awareness of this issue. News of our boycott soon spread to the national press and since then, many more people have joined us in withholding their own payments to Southern Water.
Discounts to boycotters
In February this year, Councillor Clark received a phone call offering a 50% discount on his Southern Water bill. In order to confirm that this offer had indeed been made, he accepted it via formal correspondence. Another of our boycotters, based in Walmer, received a 100% discount on her bill. Perhaps it was assumed that offering such discounts might tempt us all to give up our stand but instead it has only strengthened our resolve.
As I stated to The Times and the Guardian newspapers at that time: “In the interest of fairness, Southern Water should now offer a 100% discount to all 4.7 million wastewater customers the company serves across Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.”
The boycott spreads further
One year on, and almost every week I am contacted by people in those areas asking for information about our boycott. I am always careful to explain that this action should not be undertaken lightly as it could affect credit ratings, but still our numbers continue to grow. Those who have joined us come from all walks of life and here in Whitstable they include yoga teacher, Liz Foreman who decorated the exterior of her home with placards and helpful links to news stories about the boycott.
An all-year-round swimmer in Whitstable, Liz says, “Last year I was disgusted to learn about the amount of raw sewage that Southern Water was pumping into the sea right where I swim, and all around our coast. I immediately notified the company that I would be withholding my bill payment to them until they rectified this. As someone who grew up in the 1970s, swimming and enjoying sea life in Whitstable, I have seen a decline in marine life too, and I care greatly about applying pressure on Southern Water to stop polluting our sea.”
Chris Stanley, another local boycotter and a former magistrate says: “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.”
Emma Gibson says “My partner and I have been truly inspired by how many people have joined in the campaign to withhold their payments from Southern Water. This gives us the resolve to hold out for as long as we can.”
Following the stress of receiving letters threatening debt collection, “holding out” has proved too much of a challenge for some and a few boycotters have caved in to Southern Water’s demands. However, those same customers came up with a strategy of giving only a single payment, not reinstating direct debits (so the company cannot rely on a steady flow of income) and restarting their boycott all over again!
There really is nothing like People Power to send a powerful message to companies like Southern Water – and when it comes to unacceptable sewage dumping that message remains:-
“Can pay – won’t pay – until Southern Water cleans up its act.”
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 streaming from November 2022.
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