- Posted by: Canterbury Labour
- Category: Latest News
During most of August the sea-water quality here in Whitstable was unsafe. There were ‘no swim’ notices posted on our shores for the majority of our peak summer holiday month. The council put out ‘red flags’ along Tankerton Beach and issued these warnings against paddling and bathing because of the sewage being released into the sea.
Weeks after the Environment Agency fined Southern Water over £90m for almost 7,000 unpermitted sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015, we saw a local sewage plant break down and spill its own oil all over the seas here. The oil slick spread over 300 metres. Another instance saw 250 metric tonnes of untreated sewage ‘spilt’ from the Swalecliffe Treatment Plant into our sea. There are often other smaller releases of untreated sewage after even only moderate rainfall.
Last week the council officially closed its bathing season and withdrew lifeguards from Tankerton Beach, the red flags have gone – but has the risk?
The city council obviously don’t have any control over Southern Water, nor the Environment Agency who licence them – but they do have a responsibility for signage across the coast, public safety through our Environmental Health Teams and safeguarding our economy, which has been rocked by the releases. Our town hit the national headlines as the harvesting of oysters was stopped after fears of norovirus contaminationwith exported oysters recalled. As you can see, the threat to our reputation as a holiday destination is very real and something needs to be done.
This October the council is due to debate the sewage problems along the coast. The Conservative group want us to write to Southern Water expressing our disappointment and summon Southern Water for a dressing down by councillors on the Community Committee, but will this really change anything? We don’t think a polite note reprimanding Southern Water for their poisoning of our waters is anything like good enough.
Here are five things, Labour thinks the council can do to improve things.
- Improve data for local water users
The council’s decision to put out red flags depends on two things – direct notification of spills from the Environment Agency and its Pollution Control Forecasting system. The Environment Agency notifications are issued following mechanical faults at pumping station resulting in sewage releases. If there is any sewage released as a result of a technical failure, the Environment Agency notification lasts for 72 hours. This is considered enough time for seas to dissipate the sewage spill.
The later Pollution Control Forecasting system that the local council also uses is an algorhythm using data about expected rainfall, tide times and previous performance of the sewage system to predict when rainfall will overwhelm the system and see diluted untreated waste washed out of the five combined sewage overflows were have in Whitstable (CSO’s).
CSOs act as emergency discharge valves in our sewerage system, discharging untreated sewage mixed together with general household wastewater, field and gutter run-off water when the system comes close to bursting, supposedly during periods of intense rainfall. Without CSOs, this waste-water-mix could start backing up in our houses and gardens, so they are a vital part of our sewerage infrastructure. It is a forecast which doesn’t use the real-time information on the capacity of local tanks.
Some local swimmers use a wide range of apps to help them decide whether it is safe to swim and a lot of these apps contradict one another and indeed contradict the council’s advice. Some swimmers use Beach Buoy, an app designed by Southern Water to provide a real time record of their CSO outflow. The Surfers Against Sewage App scrapes data off the Environment Agency website and Beach Buoy, but can misrepresent data corrections on the Beach Buoy app sometimes showing updates and corrections to old spills as ‘new’ spills.
Further mixed-messaging has also confused matters locally: In June when a lightning strike hit the Thanet pumping station and saw a spill in Margate the ‘red flags’ on our beaches went up – but this was because of a PCF forecast of rainfall not concern about the spill reaching this far around the coast. No one was told this.
In short, Canterbury City Council need to:
- immediately reintroduce clear webpages which bring together and explain all this data – linking it with water quality data which is ultimately the most important thing. People want to know which local beaches are safe.
- Give answers as to how we still have a Blue Flag beach in Tankerton when things are so bad.
- Publish online accessible weekly water quality data.
- explain why its advice on safe bathing sometimes differs from the Environment Agency’s. Whilst sewage discharges are terrible, the weather and tides can have a huge effect on the dispersal of sewage away from the beach. Therefore, on several occasions last summer the council took down its red flags before the Environment Agency because it had seen detailed modelling from the EA suggesting spills had dispersed before the EA could revoke its order. This needs to be explained.
Whilst the ‘red flags’ go up in Tankerton for sewage dispersals, this isn’t the case on other beaches in Kent or indeed further around the country, where lifeguards often choose to use red flags for rip tides or severe weather only. In Thanet for example, red flags never go up for CSO wastewater overspills even when they happen.
When we receive a PCF warning, the council puts up a small sign in the Tankerton lifeguard hut by 9am, but this doesn’t help people who choose to swim elsewhere, don’t see the sign or are out earlier. Sea swimming is an all-year-round activity and only putting one small sign up is not good enough.
We believe we need to see signage across the length of Tankerton Beach and not just in the lifeguard hut. High quality information in central locations like the Harbour would help people to be able to decide where they want to swim from. Greater use of QR codes could also help people on isolated beaches find links to information on water quality.
By making us of social media channels and perhaps a targeted email list or targeted text / WhatsApp message group to inform people of the risk the council could get information out before the 9am.
3. Partnership working
The council has now decided to re-convene its ‘Seaside Bathing Group’, an officer led committee of council representatives from Foreshore Services, Environmental Health, Engineering and representatives from the Environment Agency and Southern Water. In the next couple of months, they will do a ‘wash up’ meeting, reflecting on incidents this season and seeking to improve the flow of information between them.
To ensure this committee responds to the local community we believe it should be a quarterly meeting, not limited to the summer and enlarged to include local councillors, swimming groups, water users and affected local businesses. It is important that the passion and anger of public protest is made clear to Southern Water.
- A coastal strategy
Canterbury has 16 miles of coastline which plays a huge role in our local economy. The importance of effective management of this space has been made clear in a number of interventions the council has made over the last couple of years including the introduction of new jet ski licensing and seaside byelaws last summer and the production of a Coastal Management Plan in 2019 after public petitions on the amount of litter.
The Coastal Management Plan is reviewed annually with input from the local police, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Kent Fire & Rescue and the council but isn’t an officially adopted strategy and as result isn’t subject to scrutiny from councillors and something the public are consulted upon. The current plan contains nothing at all on water quality or sewage.
Whilst some local authorities have been proactive in developing non statutory Coastal Strategies to improve the level of consultation around its Statutory Coastal Management Plan which explains coastal erosion – Canterbury has done nothing. The coast doesn’t even feature in our Open Spaces Strategy for fear that ‘factoring it in’ will mean we need to build considerably more play parks than we currently have.
Labour would like to see the council role its Coastal Management Plan into a Coastal Strategy which is formally adopted by the council. The new strategy would provide a means by which local environmental groups could be better involved in decisions about our coastal management and help set the priorities.
We would turn something which is largely about reacting to reputational damage into something which can proactively improve an area.
- No housing without clear assurances
Whatever Southern Water do to fix the Swalecliffe Pumping Plant, sewage will still flow into the sea unless we see the residential sewage system detached from that relating to rainwater run-off. Ofwat (the industry regulator) has already raised concern that they believe these overflows are being increasingly used as additional housebuilding adds pressure to the largely Victorian sewage system.
In Canterbury the council recently rejected plans for 1,100 homes in Sturry and Broad Oak because they believe the sewage infrastructure hadn’t been adequately considered. The scheme latterly received planning permission but only once Southern Water had agreed to increasing the capacity and clearance of effectively two large septic tanks on site. Developments in Stodmarsh, almost 4,000 homes, have effectively been shelved because there are concerns that any new housing development within the Stour catchment would damage the water quality and environment. The risk is very real.
Architectural features like attenuation ponds which retain surface water on site rather than wash it through the drainage system are increasingly common but not a statutory requirement of new builds. We believe such features should be far more common in new developments.
Labour also believe that the council should immediately review its planning policy to make sure that its own actions aren’t making the situation any worse. As of 2012 new developments of over 10 houses have lost their automatic right to be added to the drainage system and now are subject to a Local Flood Authority (in our case Kent County Council) commenting on how sustainable each projects drainage plans are.
Labour could go stage further by publishing detailed Sustainable Drainage Standards for developers as part of its planning process at a local level. It would ensure that developers provide information on clear maintenance arrangements are in place for the lifetime of the development and provide this information before planning is granted and not before development happens.
Canterbury City Council should publish a The Surface Water Management Plan setting out the long-term plan for reducing the risk of surface water flooding throughout the area. The Plan would include methodology for the identification and assessment of risk and options for implementation of risk reduction methods.
Planning decisions should utilise Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) unless there are practical reasons for not doing so. It will not be acceptable for surface water run off to enter the waste-water system.
The problem of dumping of sewage into our seas is a complicated requiring legislative changes at the highest level but this doesn’t mean that local government doesn’t have a part to play. Canterbury City Council must take decisive action right now, before another year of waste-water chaos hits our area. In October Labour will be submitting amendments to the council’s debate on this issue. We hope our demands (listed above) and ideas are listened to and we can deliver some of our vision. This issue isn’t one divided under party lines, there are Conservatives who believe that the council can and should go further; perhaps we can work together with a bit more ambition to respond to the size and scale of the problem we face.