I’m sure many readers have been enjoying the later summer sun after an unusually cloudy August.

As a keen swimmer I have really enjoyed getting into the sea most mornings. I’m also very excited about the pod of dolphins that have recently been seen close to our shoreline. Some of you may also have noticed that lockdown has encouraged more residents to take advantage of our fantastic coastline and enjoy the sea.

I’ve been in touch with Brighton and Hove based South Coast Sirens, a fantastic group of all year-round sea swimmers (braver than me) who are dedicated to making the seas around the South Coast permanently free from pollution and sewage spills.

South Coast Sirens was set up by sea users in and around Brighton, in response to serious health and safety implications of the continued sewage releases for humans and marine life. Their goal is to stop sewage releases into the sea around the South Coast and to commit Southern Water to stopping sewage outlets and invest in upgrades to their outdated system. The group has started to independently test how clean local bathing waters are, and to monitor the frequency of raw sewage spillages into our sea.

Southern Water along with other privately owned water companies, have become a byword for environmental pollution and foul play in the dirty business of wastewater management.

After criticism from the regulator Ofwat back in 2017 about “basic data errors” the Environment Agency successfully initiated a criminal prosecution of Southern Water in July for dumping 21 billion litres of raw sewage in Chichester’s “protected” harbour. The sewage was dumped deliberately 6971 times at Chichester alone.

Despite a huge fine of £90 million being imposed and the promise of refunds for customers, will anything change and will the investment in infrastructure that is so desperately needed be made?

New majority shareholder, asset management fund Macquarie, invested £1 billion in Southern Water this August and stated that £2 billion of investment will be made in the next four years and that 2019’s pollution levels will be halved. This sounds promising. However, the real fear is that the already high pollution levels of 2019 are actually a drop in the ocean due to systemic under-reporting of sewage releases by Southern Water.

Southern Water’s Beachbuoy app provides data on sewage spills duration and location and provided data on the 24 hours of sewage spillage at Cowes on the eve of the Cowes Week regatta on the Isle of Wight this year. The site suggests that these sewage releases only occur when there has been very high rainfall. However, regular sea users have noticed raw sewage being released on dry days too.

South Coast Sirens campaigns to raise funds for independent water quality testing to supplement the summer testing carried out by the Environment Agency. They’ve already raised funds to start testing which costs £24 per test via a crowdfunding campaign accessible from their Facebook page. This testing will help establish the true level of sewage in our seas and waterways.

The public shouldn’t have to step in to find out the truth about our water quality water companies acted responsibly and in the public interest rather than that of just their shareholders.

Maybe Southern Water’s new owners will turn things around but it’s hard to trust a company that pays its CEO a £500,000 bonus after getting fined £90 million; who didn’t pay any corporation tax last year and still has a financial subsidiary in the Cayman Islands and an offshore parent company.

The Argus: Cllr John AllcockCllr John Allcock

Meanwhile, Southern Water’s shareholders have benefited to the tune of £190 million in dividends between 2016-17 alone while under-investment and debts have increased. According to Ofwat, water companies have racked up debts of £51 billion since they were privatised in 1988 while giving shareholders £56 billion in dividends.

It’s clear where the money for new infrastructure seems to be going. So, can water companies be trusted to plan and manage for the long term rather than short term profiteering? With the homeless crisis always with us and new homes still being a priority for the council with a plan for 13,200 homes in the city by 2030 and over 3000 new homes are under construction in 2020-21, where is all the sewage going to go? Our Victorian waterworks are creaking.

Perhaps water companies need to be taken back into public ownership for this to happen. Unfortunately, with water shortages a real prospect for the near future due to climate change, time is short and fixing a few leaky pipes is probably not going to be enough. A real solution is needed now.

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