Combatting sewage in our waters

Brighton and Hove Green Councillor Elaine Hills highlights the widespread practice of illegal sewage dumping by large water companies and its impact on local communities, calling for Southern Water to end its use of the practice by 2030.

Brighton and Hove Cllrs
Cllr Elaine Hills

We need to talk about sewage. Water companies have forced it onto the agenda. Their unchecked polluting of our waterways has ramifications for our health, food, and leisure activities. The widespread practice of illegal sewage dumping demonstrates an insidious disregard for both people and nature. 

The behaviour of Southern Water – which supplies 4.2 million consumers in Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight – dwarfs that of water companies elsewhere in the UK, polluting and wrecking marine havens with abandon. Last July, the company was fined £90 million for illegally running 21 billion litres of raw sewage into seas and rivers, following the most extensive investigation by the Environment Agency (EA) to date. That’s why we are calling on Southern Water to commit to zero sewage in our waters by 2030.

Between 2010 and 2015, Southern Water knowingly dumped untreated sewage on 10,741 occasions at the 17 sites examined by the EA, 78 per cent of which were illegal. Treatment works were deliberately maintained at less than half of their capacity in the interests of maximising profits. Tanks were kept full, leaving them to turn septic and contaminate the sea with a toxic mix of sewage and precipitation. 

Sewage dumping threatens delicate ecosystems. Human faecal matter found in shellfish along the south coast risks exposing consumers to the potentially fatal norovirus. Similarly, sewage pollution introduces E. coli into waters, making swimmers and bathers ill. Surfers Against Sewage CEO Hugh Tagholm has labelled this ‘criminal capitalism’. Our petition demands that Southern Water provide signs to make the public aware of sewage discharge points. At present, people are unknowingly swimming in contaminated water. 

Southern Water insists that it is ‘committed’ to improving the quality of beaches. The Bathing Water Enhancement Programme, launched in 2016, directed £31.5 million over four years towards bringing seven of the south coast’s bathing waters up to the Environment Agency’s ‘excellent’ standard. However, Surfers Against Sewage found that water companies discharged untreated sewage into these natural pools over 5,500 times in the twelve months to November 2021, an uptick of 87 per cent on the previous year.

A network of sewer overflows pervades the UK’s waterways, creeping along our coastline. In extreme weather, sluices are opened, allowing sewage onto beaches deemed among the cleanest in the country, accessed by families and tourists.

Southern Water says that it will curtail the recurrence of storm overflows from its combined system, proposing to reduce storm releases by 80 per cent by 2030. However, we are regularly seeing this infrastructure activated to tackle routine rainfall, pumping raw sewage into our rivers and seas at an alarming rate. These assurances don’t go far enough – we must push to see zero sewage in our waters by 2030.

Green politicians are speaking out against Southern Water’s blatant dereliction of duty. In October 2021, Green MP Caroline Lucas criticised the 265 Conservative MPs who voted to cut an amendment to the Environment Bill which would have given the water companies a legal duty of care not to pollute. Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, Jenny Jones has slammed our ‘toothless’ system of environmental enforcement and weak regulatory structures.

In Brighton and Hove, I proposed a Notice of Motion to the council asking Southern Water to stop sewage overflows by 2030, invest in sustainable water management locally and explain its plans publicly. My counterparts in Lewes Green Party, Councillor Matthew Bird and Green Council Leader Zoe Nicholson, have demanded that Southern Water detail how it will prevent sewage pollution in the River Ouse.

Meanwhile, my colleague, Councillor Martin Osborne has been appointed chair of The Aquifer Partnership (TAP), which has representation from the South Downs National Park Authority, Southern Water, the Environment Agency and Brighton and Hove City Council. TAP is progressing the development of the Wild Park Rainscape in Brighton, which will counteract polluted runoff from contaminating groundwater. It will encompass a multitude of planted permeable basins that sequester rainfall. 

The Brighton and Hove Green Party is calling on Southern Water to work with the council, public and community groups to invest in sustainable drainage systems to tackle excess rainfall and reduce flooding. These mimic the natural interception and diversion of surface water and include environmental measures such as wetlands, rain-water harvesting systems and porous asphalt. 

The first of two such projects in Brighton and Hove is almost complete. The Carden Avenue project provides soft surfaces to prevent surplus rainwater from running downhill and overwhelming drainage systems during intense downpours. In Sweden, similar interventions have been crucial to flood prevention, absorbing up to 90 per cent of stormwater and alleviating the need to discharge sewage overflow into the sea. 

Private companies need to work with local communities to implement structural change, transparent processes and ambitious targets that secure the health of our residents and our waterways. If they won’t do what is necessary to keep our water clean and safe, public ownership might be the only answer.