Councils have slammed Southern Water and made a formal complaint to its CEO after the company refused to answer questions in public about its failings.

Adur and Worthing Councils' joint overview and scrutiny committee has written to Lawrence Gosden to express their disappointment at Southern Water's rejection of its invitations to participate in its public meetings.

Aware that its residents are becoming “increasingly concerned and frustrated about the continued pollution of coastal waters", the committee said it is keen to understand Southern Water's strategic direction and priorities.

It comes after a sewage leak, caused by two pumps failing at Southern Water’s Shoreham wastewater treatment works, affected the coastline around Shoreham including the River Adur for days.

An initial invitation to participate in one of the committee's meetings was sent to Southern Water in August last year.

A follow up request by the committee was then sent for a meeting in November, which was declined by the water company. The latest invitation was sent for Tuesday’s committee meeting, which was also declined.

Following the latest refusal, Southern Water informed the committee that it was unwilling to attend a meeting held in public. Instead, the company offered a private meeting to council leaders, cabinet members and officers to discuss the issues and its forward plan.

Read more: 'I can't fix sewage spills overnight, but I'm committed' says Southern Water boss

The offer of a private meeting has been criticised by the committee, which wants to hold the company to account publicly. Councillors are also disappointed that an offer to tour the Southern Water treatment works at East Worthing was withdrawn, at a day's notice.

In the letter to Mr Gosden, Councillor Joss Loader and Councillor Dr Heather Mercer who co-chair the scrutiny committee, questioned Southern Water's desire to engage and be transparent with its customers.

“Southern Water is effectively a monopoly and it has a duty to answer questions, from residents, in a public arena,” said Cllr Loader.

“They have attended JOSC meetings previously, and their current refusal has prompted councillors and customers to ask what they are now trying to hide.

“The water company's recent spill off Shoreham Harbour affected the district's coastline and river for days, so now seems more appropriate than ever for their senior management team to meet us, in public, and address our legitimate concerns.”

Cllr Dr Mercer said: “It is disappointing that Southern Water is the only external body, normally scrutinised annually, who have persistently declined to attend JOSC, despite diary dates being agreed.

“It's very important that the voices of our residents are heard by Southern Water. Our communities and coastline continue to be detrimentally affected by its services, and residents expect Southern Water to attend so they have the opportunity to understand what is being done to address the situation.”

Mr Gosden previously told The Argus that for the first six months of his time as CEO from July 2022 he had been "out on the doorsteps" meeting customers.

Southern Water confirmed Mr Gosden has received the letter from the councillors and has repeated his offer of a personal meeting to the chief executive and leaders of both councils to explain the company’s position.

“No such meeting has yet taken place, but we very much hope it can be scheduled soon,” said a spokesman.

Katy Taylor, Southern Water’s chief customer officer, said:  “Councils are vital partners throughout our region, as we work towards a shared goal of protecting and enhancing our environment and providing the best possible service to customers. It is important we engage with all stakeholders in the most effective and efficient way possible, while remaining as open and transparent as possible.   

“We are currently exploring the best use of resources to achieve this engagement and collaboration but remain absolutely committed to our close working relationships. We are prioritising direct engagement with our customers and communities through regular drop-in events, where customers raise a range of issues with us face-to-face, and we listen to their concerns.”