By Councillor Chris Cornell / Latest News / / 0 Comments

Local government can be extremely glamorous some times and as such I spent Monday afternoon visiting the Swalecliffe Sewage Plant in Brook Road. I was asked to attend by Southern Water as part of a small stakeholder group, including representatives from SOS Whitstable, environmental groups and local residents in close proximity to the site. The group was convened following the public meeting arranged by Rosie Duffield MP at the end of June.

Detailed communications about what is going on at the plant will be coming out soon and whilst I am not a water engineer I thought it would be useful to share some reflections on the trip and what hope there is for the future.

So what do we know:

  1. Investment has started at the site

Concerns by direct neighbours about being woken by an alarm every time a ‘spill’ took place have been addressed by now manning the site 24/7. Inspections of the Odour Control Unit on site have identified a number of broken pipes which have been replaced and there are now odour monitoring stations run by an independent company on site and in the back garden of one local resident. We are pushing for real time information from this system to be available to local residents.

We saw evidence of new electrical back ups added to the inflow coming into the site, additional storm tanks to increase their overflow capacity and plans for new improved systems to remove ‘rag’.

Southern Water are using the odour monitoring system to manage the effectiveness of the Odour Control Units and how they pump out the tanks. Five times a week ‘sludge’ (the removed faecal matter) is transported to another site in Canterbury where it is processed into bio gas and a nitrate rich fertiliser sold to farmers.

The company have already invited local residents to visit the site and residents reported that communication has notably improved. Evidence of improved communication includes an agreement by Southern Water to replace the gates on site (they were loud at night), cut back trees and consider introducing an ANPR system which would automatically open the gates, improved signage and avoiding collection during the school run to improve road safety.

At the end of this month the company will seal the outflow into the Swalecliffe Brook used to as an emergency pressure release valve when heavy rain reaches the hydraulic capacity of the site. The site is currently designed to take 208 litres of sewage a second but can reach up to 800l per second in heavy rainfall.

When the 208l capacity is met, large storm tanks on the site fill. This water is then pumped back into the system when the pressure dissipates. If these storm tanks are full to bursting, water is currently pumped into the brook. From November this now be disposed of by the short sea outfall – the diluted sewage released into the sea but not the SSSI.

Southern Water have increase the capacity of their storm tanks by 25% to try to try and reduce the number of times capacity is reached.

The proposed extension to the long sea outfall – the pipe with which cleaned water is pumped out to sea will take place in Summer 2024. The work can only be done outside of the season for migratory birds and requires a number of licenses for off shore piling. They have submitted a planning application to the council for the new base of this on the shoreline.

They have offered to help clean up or ‘rewild’ the Brook after the building work but how the systems were allowed to fall into such disrepair still remains unclear.

2. Water quality testing is the next battle

Whilst works have started on the Swalecliffe site, Southern Water are clear that the problem of surface run off overwhelming our Victorian sewage system isn’t going away and is only getting worse with climate change.

The Swalecliffe pumping station serves a catchment of some 38,000 people and when the system predicts capacity at Swalecliffe is to extend beyond 800l per second – the overflow (surface run off and untreated sewage) is directed upstream of the plant to one of 5 combined sewage outflows (CSO’s) along the coast.

Whilst water flowing through the CSO’s is heavily diluted and not raw sewage, the pertinent question is how safe its the water to swim in.

Southern Water currently provide real time data on the use of their CSO’s through an app called Beach Buoy. They acknowledge that this system needs improvement are are revising it. The new system will see spills effectively colour coded to more clearly explain to people the total quantity of water spilt, how tides will disperse flow and updated to prevent a number of false positives.

The system currently records when sensors in each of the pipes are triggered however on site inspections and modelling after the alarm can sometimes indicate that the trigger is seawater flowing up a pipe on the tide or a mechanical fault. Surfers Against Sewage are being consulted on how this information will present on their app.

Southern Water are at pains to suggest that recent community water testing which identified the presence of E-Coli at the beach is at odds with Environment Agency data which suggests our beaches have the cleanest water they ever. Whilst it would be nice for the community to be involved in testing, there are questions to be raised about the accuracy of these home test kits, whether capacity exists locally to do proper laboratory testing and how quick any turnaround would be.

The preferred solution would thus be a real time water quality monitoring station off Tankerton which Southern Water have indicated they are willing to help fund. We are actively pursuing this with the council and Southern Water.

3. House building is making the problem worse

In contrast to many of its competitors, Southern Water publicly wrote to MP’s this week in support of Duke of Wellington’s amendment to the Environment Bill.

This amendment (added to the bill twice by the House of Lords) committed water companies to reducing CSO emissions year on year – it was eventually replaced by a government amendment which only asked them to work to mitigate the effect of said emissions.  The revised amendment prevented a back bench rebellion but was widely criticised by local environmental groups for failing to hold companies to account.

In our meeting Southern Water made it clear that the nature and scale of future house building was untenable unless the council are able to commit to all new developments being ‘water neutral’. The water neutral standard sees developers encourage homeowners to use less water by installing smart meters and mechanical devices to reduce water use. It encourages them to harvest gray water and include means of storing water on site so that it slowly soaks through the catchment and doesn’t rush immediately into the drains (semi permeable tarmac, attenuation ponds, soakaways and reed beds).

Whilst we have recently forced the council to review its approach to sustainable drainage, we are actively pushing Southern Water to make a public statement to this affect but we have launched a petition for the council to adopt the ‘Water Neutral’ standard which you can fill in here.

We are also exploring how the council might use its building control function to ensure housing already in the pipeline is designed to this standard. Maps are being made available for the catchment so we can see the impact of planned development in the new Local Plan.

4. A new partnership approach is needed

Southern Water have began modelling and physically surveying the catchment across Whitstable to discover where surface run off is worse and what can be done about it. There initial calculations suggest that 50% of the surface run off comes from roads and 20% from roofs. Reducing this figure by 17% reduction would reduce CSO usage by over 80%.

Of course reducing surface run off from roads and homes is not easy but there are ways to do it. Additional drainage channels could be built near roads, smart water butts added to homes to hold water and funding made available for grey water harvesting on large industrial roofs.

In order to be able to put in a concerted plan, Southern Water are offering to help initially convene a North Kent Water Partnership with representatives from Kent County Council, planning authorities, the Environment Agency and Natural England. They are interested in bodies pooling funding to fund a concerted plan to reduce run off. The group would be independently chaired and see Southern Water contribute financially to any plan. How much any scheme would cost is unclear.

The stakeholder group are to begin regular meetings with Southern Water before Christmas and your opinions matter. If you have any evidence of a pollution incident or opinion on how we should proceed please email me at [email protected]

It’s fair to say that after this summer we all know a lot more than we did about sewage treatment and whilst it is encouraging to see some progress and open lines of communication, it is fair to say we remain sceptical.

By Councillor Dave Wilson / Latest News / 0 Comments

Councils need a Local Plan. What they don’t need is a plan whose growth targets are set centrally and dictated to them, forcing a reactive responsive which is the very opposite of “planning”. Yet that is the situation we have.

Like much else in this Government’s policy, the gap between proclaimed purpose and reality is vast. Saying one thing and doing something else entirely seems to be the whole modus operandum of Johnsonism, so we shouldn’t be surprised that while stating that he wants residents to have more say over how their district develops his Government imposes ludicrously inflated population growth targets.

Those targets in turn trigger a series of predictable results: more people means higher demand for schools, doctors and hospital beds. More electricity has to be supplied, more sewage has to be disposed of and, not least, there are more cars and a need for more roads.

Thus any Local Plan which is developed is immediately burdened with meeting a spiralling set of demands which have somehow to be accommodated. That challenge is supposedly sweetened by a mechanism should provide public infrastructure and gives Councils some additional but inadequate capital spend, the so-called section 106 (s106) payments and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). But it still presupposes that major growth is needed, is desirable, and can be accommodated.

The new Local Plan for Canterbury may well be testing these assumptions to destruction,  because someone somewhere has decided that it is a “preferred option” to radically inflate the Government imposed growth target from 9,000 extra homes to a staggering 17,000 (or more) so as to build by-passes which are themselves needed primarily because of the existing planned growth. This, you can see, has the potential to create a self-inflicted spiral of growth with no end.

The Government imposes other rules and constraints on local decision making, too. Landowners, not residents, decide which land they want to offer for house building, meaning that any strategic control over development locations is subjugated to the profit motivation of those landowners. The system decrees that developers must make profits which they deem viable, meaning Councils have to fight for every penny of the s106/CIL monies they are supposed to get as of right, while developers engage in financial manipulations and legal challenges, using the country’s top legal experts against under-funded local Councils, forcing their planning teams to cave in on essential requirements.

Of those requirements the two most obvious are social housing provision and environmental impact. One of the many shortcomings of the process is that because it is developer led and profit driven, it provides almost no housing which is genuinely affordable. In housing market hotspots like Canterbury, what that means is that for all the housebuilding that is taking place, neither the Council nor anyone else is able to create homes for the 2,000 plus people on the housing waiting list, while all around them massive estates are being built, presumably for people moving into the district from London.

So far as the environment is concerned, while the emerging Local Plan to 2040 is a significant improvement on its predecessor, there is no escaping the basic fact that new building will take place almost exclusively on green spaces, mostly but not exclusively, farmland. Brownfield sites don’t get much of a look in because of the way landowners are asked to propose sites for development and the massive financial gain that converting farmland to housing provides. Of course if you’re building houses on the scale this Council is intending to then there simply aren’t enough brownfield sites to start with. Worse, it’s not only farmland which may be sacrificed by this mechanism but also woodland and other wild spaces, which are proposed for two bypasses and for additional housing to the north-west and south-east of the city.

On top of this there is any case a series of knock-on effects of housebuilding on this massive scale. Roads and hard standing outside houses reduce the ability of the land to absorb rainfall, increasing flood risks. Vital trees and hedgerows get cut down and not replaced. Vehicle emissions increase, both gas and particulate because a growth in households means a growth in cars and journeys. Our few remaining parks and open spaces become over-used. There may be window dressing by providing electric bikes, vehicle charging points and the creation of some cycle routes (linking to where, no one knows), and the provision of some sort of shuttle bus (but not the funding for it). But none of that can mitigate the fact that journeys from developments on the fringes of the City and other urban areas into the centres will mostly not be taken on foot or by bike. 

Worst, perhaps, is the challenge of sewage disposal. Currently afflicting the Stour and our coasts, the unforgivable lack of treatment capacity after 30 years of private ownership is now not only literally a stain on the country but a constraint on growth. There is, simply, no way that mains treatment capacity can be increased over the life of this Local Plan. Even now, under the existing Plan, the major developments at Sturry and South Canterbury are having to provide on-site treatment plants, with at least one of them needing solid waste to be transferred off-site by tanker, while smaller City centre developments have had to stop altogether. This is a third world solution, at best, and should be wholly unacceptable in the UK. Even at a practical level, these plants require maintenance and, in a short period of time compared to a real sewage works, replacement. How is that to be paid for? And what incentive does it give Southern water to ever address the stark issues of capacity that are at the root of the problem?

In short, the concept of a Local Plan as established under this Government and applied by this Council is at odds with sensible and genuinely local planning for growth and development. We can and must respond to prevent the worst aspects of the Council’s “preferred” option, not least the grotesque notion that more building can solve our district’s transport problems. And we ought to ensure that in future neither Government nor Council can impose such crass solutions, ensuring meaningful input and decision making by local residents is at the heart of truly sustainable long term development.

NB. The pictures show Labour Councillors on a walk of the proposed Eastern bypass site

By Councillor Chris Cornell / Latest News / / 0 Comments

Whitstable News is the new way in which Labour councillors in Whitstable will keep residents informed. The new magazine replaces the more traditional Labour Rose newsletter produced every six months and has been designed to be easier and simpler to read.

Whitstable News is printed of FSC certified recycled paper using natural vegetable inks. The delivery and production of the newsletter have been carbon offset by the printers (Solopress) and is hand delivered by our volunteers on foot making its production carbon neutral.

Read the first version below.

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