The shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs said Labour will crackdown on water companies as he visited a Sussex town which has been plagued by sewage running through its streets and into gardens.

Steve Reed MP met with residents and councillors in Southwick as he spoke about his party's plans to tackle water pollution if it gets the keys to Number 10.

Labour proposes putting water companies under special measures to “force them to clean up their mess”.

Measures would include giving water regulator Ofwat powers to block the payment of any bonuses to water bosses, making water bosses who oversee "repeated law-breaking" face criminal charges, introducing huge fines for illegal sewage discharges and ending self-monitoring.

Last year was the worst since records began for discharges of untreated sewage by water companies, with sewage spilled for 3.6 million hours across England.

This doubled from 1.8 million hours in 2022.

Southern Water’s sewage spills lasted for a total of 317,285 hours in 2023, equivalent to more than 36 years.

Water UK, the industry body for sewerage companies, said the rise in spills across the country was "unacceptable" but the record levels were due to heavy rain.

Sewage spills are not illegal and are used when rain overwhelms combined sewer and drainage systems, but the Environment Agency said: "It is important to note that heavy rainfall does not affect water companies' responsibility to manage storm overflows in line with legal requirements."

In November 2022, the water giant hit back at claims it was the “worst offending” water provider in the UK for alleged illegal “dry spills”.

According to the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, a “dry spill” is when sewage is discharged when there has been no rainfall.

Read more: Water firm spilt sewage into county's waterways illegally on dry days

Mr Reed said Labour will “crackdown” on this activity.

He ruled out re-nationalising the water industry.

“Since the last general election water bosses have paid themselves £25 million in bonuses,” he said.

“We’ll give the regulator the power to ban bonus payments to water bosses if they continue to allow their companies to illegally dump sewage in our seas and rivers.

“But it’s also important, and residents were saying this to me today, there needs to be accountability.

“They feel accountability is missing and we will therefore make the water bosses personally criminally liable if they continue to allow illegal sewage dumping.

“It’s illegal, so if they continue to allow it, they will face the full force of the law and if they do under a Labour government what they’ve done under a Tory government they will end up in the dock.

“Now that will focus their minds and their finances on fixing the problem in the water and sewerage system far quicker than nationalisation and costing the public a penny.”

Mr Reed said the money accrued through fines will be used to improve infrastructure.

He said Labour would ensure water companies do not pass on the cost to customers.

The Argus: Sewage in the streets of Southwick Sewage in the streets of Southwick (Image: Robert Jones)

Residents have “had enough”

Robina Baine, Labour councillor for Southwick Green ward, and Jeremy Gardner, Labour councillor for St Mary's ward, Shoreham, showed Mr Reed The Green in Southwick, which is partly closed off while Southern Water implements “flow management solutions” to tackle drainage problems.

Residents say the issues come from a spring under the A270 which fills with water whenever it rains.

As the spring fills, the water spills into the drainage system and “overwhelms” the sewers which then flow into gardens and streets.

Cllr Baine said effluent had also come up through drains and into people’s gardens.

“It isn’t just surface water it’s been effluent coming up through as well,” she said.

“The children’s playground was closed because poo was running in it.”

Cllr Gardener said residents want Southern Water to take responsibility and build a system that is “fit for purpose”.

“In Shoreham we’ve got dozens of incidences of sewage being dumped in the Adur and the sea and here we’ve got a system that does not work,” he said.

“It’s a big job to fix these things but they’ve been given taxpayers’ money and customers money to do these things and they need to do it.

“Taking action against people at the top of these companies is essential.

“Otherwise, the companies will just continue as they do now, taking our money but not providing the service.”

The Argus: Tom Rutland, Steve Reed MP and Councillor Dr Beccy CooperTom Rutland, Steve Reed MP and Councillor Dr Beccy Cooper (Image: The Argus)

Sussex an “open sewer”

Tom Rutland, Labour candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham, said the River Adur and Sussex coastline has become “an open sewer”.

“Last month figures were released that showed Southern Water almost doubled its sewage discharges last year,” he said.

“Residents have had enough of this, it’s disgusting so I really welcome Labour’s plans.

“Labour will put the industry in special measures until it cleans up its act.”

A spokesman for Southern Water said: “We understand the concerns of our customers in Sussex and we’re continuing to improve our network in the area and continue to work closely with partners across this region.

"More widely, we are working hard to deliver fast-tracked improvements in our performance by April 2025 through our Turnaround Plan. We’ve also submitted an ambitious £7.8 billion business plan for the five years to 2030 which includes £4.1bn investment on wastewater services alone."

Ofwat “not fit for purpose”

Councillor Dr Beccy Cooper, leader of Worthing Borough Council, welcomed the proposals and said councils must be backed up by the national government while tackling the issue of sewage.

She said Ofwat needs to “pull its weight”.

“So much more needs to be done,” she said.

“Ofwat isn’t fit for purpose and we need to make sure that when we are giving assurances to our residents we are able to say the national government is playing its part.

“It’s about much tougher regulation, it’s making sure the Environment Agency is much better resourced.

“We need to be backed up by the national government and regulators need to be pulling their weight.”

Read more: Southern Water to give back millions to customers after not meeting watchdog targets

An Ofwat spokesman said: “Water companies must deliver a step change in their environmental performance, and it is through this lens that we will be taking decisions for the 2025-30 price review.

“In addition to this, we have strengthened rules to allow us to take enforcement action against companies that pay dividends to shareholders where their environmental performance does not meet our expectations. We have also gained new powers which mean bonuses will no longer be funded by customers if companies’ obligations to the environment are not being met.

"Where companies fall short, we act – over recent years, we have imposed penalties and payments of over £300 million. We currently have our biggest ever investigation underway, with live investigations into six companies, looking at their management of sewage treatment works.”

Water Minister Robbie Moore said: “We have been clear that sewage pollution in our waters is unacceptable. It is why in just the last few months we have announced a consultation to ban water bosses’ bonuses when criminal breaches have occurred, quadrupled company inspections, fast-tracked £180m investment to cut spills and launched a whistleblowing portal for water company workers.

“We also demanded that 100% of overflows were monitored by the end of last year as part of our drive to improve transparency. This data shows water companies must go further and faster to clean up our waterways. We will always ensure the Environment Agency takes enforcement action where necessary.”