The sewage cesspit that engulfed Johnson and No10: a timeline of events

And now one of the biggest polluting water companies wants YOUR help in keeping tabs on pollution …

Poster calling for the public to report pollution incidents to the water company Southern Water. The headline is Pollution spotters needed
Let us know! Southern Water calling on the public to tip them off about pollution incidents. This particular sign is over a mile from the sea and not even near a river or water course. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

A lot of sewage has poured into our coastal waters and rivers since August, when Sussex Bylines launched the first in a series of hard-hitting articles on the discharge of untreated sewage into local waterways by Southern Water. 

It was only when the story of a massive £90m fine levied against Southern Water hit the headlines in July that the growing environmental catastrophe caught the attention of the public and mainstream media. In reality, many special interest and activist groups had been campaigning for years to highlight the pollution of our seas and precious chalk streams by sewage discharges and agricultural run-off.

So what changed? The increasing popularity of wild swimming during the first lockdown was an important factor – people were discovering that the rivers and seas they were swimming in were sometimes awash with sewage detritus. The danger to human health – quite apart from the damage to the environment – became a key issue.

Highly effective campaigns by groups like South Coast Sirens helped to raise the profile of the issue and to keep it in front of an increasingly concerned public. Dr Hugo Tagolm of Surfers Against Sewage, commented on his own experience of finding himself “surrounded by the stench of sewage” when surfing, a regular occurrence. ”People are seeing it more because of a boom in wild swimming, cold water swimming, surfing, all sorts of sports and recreation which is good for people, good for their wellbeing, and good for local economies”.

MPs suddenly found themselves besieged by constituents furious about the disgusting condition of their local rivers and streams, and a photo of brown foaming water pouring from a large outlet pipe into a river went viral on social media. The government scrambled to limit the damage, as did the water companies. Bland assurances were given, and Downing Street provided their loyal troops with approved wording to share with their constituents on social media, inviting scorn and derision when it was realised that MPs were posting identical statements. 

At the beginning of September the focus of media and public attention moved from the behaviour of the water companies to the Environment Bill making its way through Parliament. The Duke of Wellington, going into battle with the determination of his illustrious ancestor, introduced an amendment to the Bill which placed a new duty on water companies and the government “to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows and requires that they progressively reduce the harm caused by these discharges”.

The Great Sewage Scandal: some facts and figures

  • Last year, water companies discharged sewage over 400,000 times, over 8 1/2 hours every day
  • In 2020, Southern Water pleaded guilty to 51 offences related to polluting the water on the coasts of Kent and Sussex with untreated sewage between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2015. They were issued with a record £90m fine
  • All but two Conservative Sussex MPs (Caroline Ansell and Huw Merriman) voted to throw out the House of Lords amendment to the Environment Bill in its passage through the Commons
  • Southern Water handed out £152.1m in dividend payments to shareholders between 2018 and 2020 in spite of OFWAT’s ruling that they should invest more in infrastructure and cut bills 
  • To keep up-to-date on discharges into our rivers and Sussex seas check the Rivers Trust interactive map and Southern Water’s own Beachbuoy
  • What Southern told us in a letter from its director of environment and corporate affairs.

The amendment was passed in the House of Lords by 184 votes to 147. Christine Colvin, director for communications at the Rivers Trust, was quoted at the time as being heartened by the House of Lords response. “This sets an explicit ambition for government to accelerate investment from the water companies into solving this problem”.

But then began a game of ping-pong between the House of Lords and the Commons, where the government used their majority of 80 seats to vote down the amendment, triggering outrage on social media. A petition supporting the House of Lords amendment gained over 90,000 signatures in a week. The government’s position was further weakened by the revelation that the rules governing the discharge of raw sewage were said to have been relaxed because of a shortage of a critical chemical used in the effluent treatment process. 

Sussex Bylines Toxic Shock series

Warning: Sussex seas may damage your health – 13 August

Beautiful but deadly: the pollution of Sussex rivers – 20 August

Profits from pollution: how private monopoly Southern Water is failing the public – 28 August

For the birds: Brexit’s latest shock, a toxic threat to our water system – 27 September

Scrambling to rescue the situation the government introduced their own amendment to the Environment Bill as a counter to the Duke of Wellington’s, and this was duly passed in the House of Commons at the end of October. Whilst a step in the right direction the government amendment significantly waters down the wording of the original, and appears to critics to provide loopholes for the water companies to exploit.

In particular, it is confined to storm overflows and does not cover the sewerage system as a whole. There’s no specific obligation on either OFWAT or the Environment Agency to enforce compliance, and overall there’s little prospect that, unless further strengthened, the amendment as it stands will lead to anything other than minor improvements to storm overflows. Also, now water companies need only to “secure progressive reductions” in adverse discharges.

The government’s legislation is at least a step in the right direction, said Tagholm, “But now we need to see the action”.

And so the battle for our seas and rivers continues…

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