Pushing water companies to come clean on sewage discharge

Lewes District Council is the first in the UK to challenge water companies to recognise the link between water pollution and new development. Green councillor Emily O’Brien reports.

Lewes sewage protest

Councillor Emily O’Brien and more than 50 member of the public who turned out in support of the motion calling for Southern Water to ‘come clean’

Cllr Emily O'Brien

As a Green councillor, I am delighted that we’ve pushed Lewes District Council to challenge our water authority to come clean on the links between water pollution – including raw sewage discharge – and new development. We’re the first council in the UK to do so.

Our rivers and seas are in an appalling state. Some of my local rivers have untreated wastewater, including raw sewage, being discharged into them by our local water company more than 10 per cent of the time. Less than one in five English rivers meet ‘good’ ecological status, and not one single river in England meets ‘good’ chemical status. 

There is a range of reasons for this: intensive agriculture, the failure of privatisation and years of underinvestment. It’s clear our sewage and wastewater system is simply overloaded. But it’s equally clear that development is playing a part. It’s simply common sense that every new house, and every new toilet, will add to the sewage burden on an already strained system.

The thing that has driven me and others mad is that, until now, we haven’t been able to consider this problem, even when it comes to large-scale development. Under the Government’s ‘duty to connect’, a planning authority must simply assume that the water company will deal with the extra waste from new developments – no questions asked – even though the sewage discharge figures for water companies across the country show that this is clearly failing to happen.

The ‘motion’ (all puns intended) I took to our council – where it got unanimous cross-party support – has taken a 10-point approach. The headline is that, for the first time, local water company Southern Water will be asked to make clear the impact of any large-scale new development on sewage discharge into local waters when they respond to planning applications. Currently, since the planning system assumes that there will be enough capacity to take all new developments, this question is not asked. Council planning officers will then have to produce a specific section on the impact on watercourses in the planning report.

We are also asking our council officers to compile evidence for our next local plan so we can develop new policies on water quality. This evidence will also mean we can take sewage discharge levels into account when we assess the total number of houses we can put in our district, as opposed to the ludicrous government housing target we have been set.

We are also asking the Environment Agency, the national regulator, to issue a position statement. They have done this on other water quality issues in nearby areas, which has seen a complete halt to all new development until the situation is resolved. We are asking Natural England, which is responsible for monitoring water quality, to urgently carry out new assessments. And we are asking Southern Water, the Environment Agency, and other relevant organisations to meet with our councillors, to come to us, and answer our questions about this unacceptable situation and how we can resolve it.

A public demonstration outside the council meeting attracted over 50 people. Banners and placards were waved in support of the new approach, which has already received interest from other areas of the UK. It’s clear that without action, the increasing levels of untreated sewage will damage not only human health but that of natural habitats and local wildlife. It’s time for water companies to come clean on the real impact of large-scale development – releasing untreated sewage into our rivers and seas is simply not okay.