As a follow-up to our ‘Toxic Shock’ series of articles on the great sewage scandal, Sussex Bylines asked three local councillors, whose areas include a stretch of Sussex coastline, to share their views on the on-going issue of pollution.
The view from Lewes: ‘Water companies must be made to clear up this mess’
James MacCleary, Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the LibDems, Lewes, and Leader of Lewes District Council: “As I write this, every beach from Brighton to Hastings is polluted with sewage. When you privatise a natural monopoly like water, you need very strong systems of regulation in place to keep the providers in order. If you don’t do that, there is no check on their natural tendency to reduce costs, inflate profits, and pay their shareholders and senior executives as much as they can get away with. Since privatisation, more than £72 billion has been taken out of the pockets of customers and given away in dividends. CEO pay and bonuses went up 21% last year. The average bonus is now £670,000. For doing what?
“Naively or deliberately, the government allows water companies to mark their own homework – the system allows them to report their own offences. One of the ways they do so is by having automatic monitors installed at outlets which are tripped when there is an outflow. But the monitors are kept in a state of disrepair. It is reported that one at Seaford beach, which has recently suffered a dreadful series of outflows, is working only one third of the time.
“Brexit has also created difficulties in getting the chemicals needed to treat sewage. The Environment Agency issued a waiver in Sept 2021 to allow companies to dump part-treated sewage.
“Our water was privatised in 1988. We have had 34 years of incompetence and deliberate neglect which, under this government, is only getting worse. Water companies must be made to pay to clean up this mess from their own funds, their dividends and their bonuses, not pass the cost on to the captive consumer.”
The view from Hastings: ‘No one’s assessing infrastructure- it’s scary’
Hastings has suffered a series of appalling sewage flooding incidents in the last two years – the most serious at Bulverhythe in 2021. Hastings Council recently passed a motion calling for the water companies to be re-nationalised.
Councillor Julia Hilton, the first Green to be elected to Hastings Council, told Sussex Bylines: “The worst thing is that Southern Water seem to have no idea about the state of their pipes. Another serious incident of a burst sewage pipe could happen in Hastings without any warning. No one seems to have been keeping any assessment of the infrastructure which is really scary. That’s our main worry.
“We have two beaches that are classified as bathing water beaches that the Environmental Agency monitor – but that’s only the bathing water beaches. People swim all the way along the coast, not just there. It’s impossible to get accurate data on the day-to-day state of our coastal waters as the monitoring services [see below] often provide contradictory information. We can’t put warnings up all along the coast beyond the bathing beaches because we lack consistent and reliable data.
“Southern Water’s excuse is – we have all these Victorian sewers – but we’ve had those since Victorian times so why aren’t they doing something about changing it? They just throw up their hands and say it’s going to cost a lot. We still haven’t had any clear sense of their infrastructure plans for Hastings. We have vague commitments about reducing discharges by 2035 but there are no interim targets. We want some action now. So that’s very frustrating.
“On the positive side, Southern Water are doing a lot of consultation now, and the new CEO – Lawrence Gosden – has come through the industry and does know his stuff. At one recent session local councillors were asked what the biggest problem was. The answer was lack of trust. Water authorities are not trusted to do things properly and it will be a huge uphill battle to change that. Delivery is the only thing that will turn that around.”
The view from Worthing: ‘This is completely indefensible in the 21st century’
Worthing Council is applying for the sea off a stretch of beach from York Road to The Esplanade to be designated as bathing water, increasing pressure on Southern Water to upgrade their infrastructure in the area. There is currently just one designated bathing water in the borough, south of Heene Terrace. This is the only spot where the Environment Agency tests the water quality to determine whether bacteria found in sewage is present.
Labour’s Vicki Wells is Worthing’s Cabinet Member for the Environment. She told us: “Our coastline is a treasure for all to enjoy. Understanding the water quality is instrumental to ensuring the sea at Worthing is as clean as it could and ought to be.
“Indefensible releases of sewage with harmful bacteria and other pollutants into this environment is completely unacceptable in the 21st Century. Decades of underinvestment in the infrastructure of water utilities, and an Environment Act that doesn’t hold polluting water companies to account, means that the monitoring of these waterways is more important than ever.”
What are their respective parties’ policies?
While these Sussex councillors are facing the reality of dealing with the problems that come with a crumbling infrastructure what are their respective parties’ policies for addressing the problem at a national level?
Labour, having backed away from a previous commitment to re-nationalise public utilities, would ‘toughen up laws on pollution and introduce penalties for under-reporting of incidents and hold water bosses to account’ according to their shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon.
Both the LibDems and the Greens are rather more ambitious. The LibDems plan a sewage bonus ban and would demand that water bosses repay the millions they have already received in bonuses to contribute towards the cost of modernising the wastewater system. Although it is not current party policy, James MacCleary would like to see the temporary renationalisation of areas where companies are failing.
The Green Party is demanding an immediate enforcement order on water companies, along with a cut to executive pay, an end to dividends to shareholders and for the water supply to be brought back into public ownership as soon as it is practical to do so.
Sadly for the future of Sussex beaches and for the local councillors battling to prevent further incidents of pollution, not one of those policies is likely to see the light of day under the present government.