Public Meeting with Southern Water
Monday 2nd August, St Johns Centre Swalecliffe
Rosie Duffield MP (Chair), Sir Roger Gale MP, Deidre Wells (CEO, Visit Kent), Cllr Neil Baker (Kent County Council / Canterbury City Council), Cllr Chris Cornell (Canterbury City Council), Andy Taylor (CT5 Forum/Local Resident) Lawrence Gosden (Director of Asset Management & Strategy, Southern Water), Dr Toby Willison (Director of Environment & Corporate Affairs, Southern Water)
The meeting started with introductions from the panel – both representatives from Southern Water indicated that they had been in post less than a year and committed to solving the problems of the past. Local councillors stressed the threat posed by Southern Waters historic disregard for environmental standards to our towns’ reputation, resident health and economy.
Roger Gale highlighted how the problems at the Swalecliffe pumping station were being mirrored at Reculver. Andy Taylor spoke of the frustration of residents near to the pumping station over many years.
Concerns were raised in regard to the pumping station from local residents included:
- The smell, particularly when tankers were clearing the cesspits. Residents said that they wouldn’t open windows in hot weather, put clothes out on the line or leave the house to walk the dog on some days.
- The alarm. An alarm sounds when sewage is discharging into the brook waking local residents. When residents have called Southern Water they have been told that there is one engineer on duty up to two hours away. The alarm can start in the early morning and run for up to 8 hours at a time.
- The impact on marine environment: Residents have reported seeing dead animals, especially eels in the brook, they were concerned that diesel discharged into the brook in 2019 hasn’t been cleared. They believe that there are three pipes in the brook (one under the water line) and not the one which Southern Water believe there is.
- Flooding: Residents reported stormwater running down the road toward the brook and the brook overflowing near the pedestrian bridge. Residents regularly clear the bridge but worry about what they are stepping in and children are walking into school. Resident reported staying up until 1-2am in the morning to ensure that their homes were not flooded with tidal surdes.
- Broken promises: Local residents remember a similar meeting taking place with Southern Water under Julian Brazier MP. They have found call centre staff unhelpful and disinterested – often suggesting that the odours are a natural part of the decomposition.
Southern Water apologised to local residents, they acknowledged that the faults seem to relate to the pumping station not working correctly, despite investing almost £9m in the station since 2015. It was ‘not acceptable’ they admitted.
Southern Water noted that they:
- Will set up a full odour survey of the site within the next six weeks. The survey will collect the odour at multiple points and last for a minimum of two months. A restructuring of the organisation is nearing completion with the aim of returning more staff to manning pumping stations.
- Are committing £16m to improve the Swalecliffe site. This work has already started with the long sea outfall being replaced and lengthened within the last six weeks. They hope that this action will prevent sewage from being tide locked. They acknowledge the need to replace one of the outfalls. All this work will be completed within 18 months. A detailed plan of the proposals to improve the site will be available for public scrutiny through Rosie’s office. They acknowledged that these plans will “get the site running as it should” and full performance might take up to four years to achieve.
- Will improve community engagement. Attendees at the session were encouraged to form a smaller group of ten who can liase directly with Tony and be invited to a return site visit. They encourages residents with concerns not to ring the call centre but contact Barry Woodham ([email protected] / 07788356969)
- Work closely with Environmental Health. Whilst bad smells do include bacteria, the Environment Agency do consider this when licensing the site and any public health concerns that residents have should be reported to the Environmental Health team at the council.
- They expect to see an improvement and are willing to provide baseline data of the number of discharges and evidence that they have set and are achieving new targets.
A number of people raised the issue of the recent judgement against Southern Water for deliberately dumping sewage into the sea between 2010 and 2015. There were concerns over why money was being given to shareholders when infrastructure investment is obviously so necessary. People demanded lifetime bans for directors found guilty of being in charge during such negligence. Points were raised about how the companies own investor reports showed over £350m of cash in the bank and yet a will to reduce operating costs by 20% by 2025. Many people favoured renationalisation of the industry.
Southern Water were challenged on information in their latest annual report which indicated that they were failing to meet their own targets for discharge into the sea through CSO’s (Combined Sewer Overflows). The overflows are used as an overflow value to reduce the risk of sewage backing up during heavy rainfall.
Many people asked questions directly as to the safety of the beach and water for swimming. In particular they wanted:
- More information on why CSO discharges are so common. Since January 2021 one resident noted that there was evidence of over 177 discharges from the five CSO’s across Whitstable – one lasting for over 66 hours. Given that there hadn’t been 177 storms, how much rain did it take for CSO’s to be used, they asked?
- Information on what quality of water they were swimming in
- Information on how local housing developments were making the problem worse. There was evidence of housing developments in Ashford only being agreed to with Southern Water agreeing to regular pump out on site cesspits – thereby reducing pressure within the system.
- Why more real time data on water quality wasn’t available to residents and along the coast.Residents requested the council explore electronic signage on the beach as part of its blue flag status.
Southern Water acknowledged that:
- The problem of CSO’s is not easily fixed. The sewage infrastructure is dated – an average pumping station may deal with 200 gallons per minute but in a storm can have over 800 gallons per minute flowing through it. The long term solution, being explored in the latest Environment Bill is to take storm water out of the sewage system by encouraging greywater recycling in new developments and the increased use of soakaways or attenuation ponds which hold storm water. The new bill will help but climate change is increasing the frequency of heavy storms and at present any decent rainfall will see the CSO’s used.
- They have 98% realtime monitoring of their CSO’s which are reported through the Beach Buoy App. They acknowledged that the information presented by the app, Environment Agency and Surfers Against Sewage isn’t always consistent.
- Improving the performance at Swalecliffe will reduce the use of CSO’s but not end it
- More regular testing of the water might be possible. West beach is tested once a month now. At the end of the meeting Southern Water did indicate that daily testing ‘should be achievable’
Local councillors were supportive of the idea of real time data monitoring, both acknowledged that the current ‘blue flag’ status isn’t fit for purpose and the criteria which relates to presenting information on water quality can largely be achieved by directing people to a website. Chris Cornell agreed to take this forward and report back to those present. He expressed concern that the blue flag status of Tankerton beach means the council are particularly weak at reporting on water quality on other beaches in the area.
Sir Roger Gale and Neil Baker expressed concern that the current planning system does not adequately consider the risk of surface run off, particularly in lower land areas some distance from the site. They blamed the Environment Agency (cut by over 20% in the last five years) for failing to provide local planning departments with clear information.
The details of people attending the meeting were collected so that progress reports could be sent to them by Rosie and her team. Anyone who didn’t attend and wants to join this mailing list should email [email protected]