Letter from the Secretary of State
With the summer months comes a renewed sense of concern for many of the scourge of storm-overflow system.
These outdated pieces of fundamental infrastructure allow the dangerous release of raw sewage into our waterways and, as such, into our highly acclaimed bathing water here in Worthing and Arun.
A sense of proportion and chronology is necessary in understanding how longstanding an issue this has been and why, in recent years under increased attention and scrutiny as well as vastly improved mechanisms to monitor overflow, it appears to have gotten worse.
Sewage has been released into our waterways since they were first installed. This is due to the antiquated and ineffective nature of Victorian sewage systems that governments and water boards have failed to modernise time and time again. This must stop and I have made this clear in the Commons over recent years.
My work on this has gone on enduringly throughout the year, not just when it is a present and visible concern. Recent meetings with Southern Water, Ministers and regulators to further the case for urgent investment have taken place to address our failing sewage systems.
I am in the process of arranging a visit to water treatment plants and the Southern Water monitoring centre, as well as meeting with the head of the Clean Rivers and Seas Task Force.
In recent days I have spoken with the head of Surfers Against Sewage to discuss the need for a cooperative approach to addressing sewage overflow. Although I have long been a strong supporter of Surfers Against Sewage and our shared campaign to stop the release of sewage into our waters. However, good cooperation means acknowledging mistakes and problems.
I raised a serious concern with a specific piece of incorrect information which continued to be provided on their application regarding a local water outlet. Incorrect information on the Surfers Against Sewage website unfortunately led to local constituents being further concerned about the release of raw sewage at Worthing Beach from a surface runoff outlet, when this was not the case. The accuracy of this data is important to inform us of the true extent of sewage spillages.
Below are two important letters in response to ongoing concerns shared by my office and me.
The first is from Southern Water in relation to constituent concerns and our request for a clear action plan for immediate improvement of the situation.
The second is a letter from the Minister for Environmental Quality and Resilience regarding the Government's plans to strengthen environmental civil sanctions.
Constituents can have confidence that I remain active in support of safer and cleaner bathing waters, better cared-for marine environments and sensible, urgent action to address our failing Victorian sewage systems.
Let us continue to work cooperatively and constructively to address this serious issue.
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Dear Sir Peter,
Thank you for your email regarding the concerns of your constituents about the use of storm overflows in Worthing. We completely understand the concern of your constituents about this. We’re committed to improving our environmental performance and agree that the current use of storm overflows is unacceptable. Reducing their use is a key priority for us, which is why we’re investing £2 billion between 2020 and 2025 to significantly improve our existing infrastructure.
Storm overflows are part of the historical water network’s design – a release valve which protects homes, businesses and roads from flooding when the network capacity is exceeded due to rainwater or groundwater infiltration. Since privatisation, Southern Water has invested more than £10 billion to upgrade our infrastructure. This means we have significantly increased the volume of wastewater that is fully treated before release from 50% to 95%. We are now going further, and our goal is to tackle the last 5% of wastewater.
If we just blocked up storm overflows immediately without building in other places for excess water to be captured, the system would be over-run and it would lead to flooding and pollution in people’s homes. Unfortunately, there is not a single, simple fix but we are determined to tackle this and we have been investing significant resources, working with our communities and environmental groups on a plan of action.
This is being led by our Clean Rivers and Seas Task Force which has been trialling new innovative solutions and building new partnerships in communities to help manage surface water runoff and slow the flow of water in towns and cities.
We know that releases from storm overflows can be concerning and this is a complicated issue, so we have put together information on storm overflows on our website at Storm Overflows (southernwater.co.uk). Our Beachbuoy information page also displays near-real-time data on storm overflows. You and your constituents can view whether there have been any recent releases in Worthing, and Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) uses the same data to populate its app.
You may have seen that the Worthing Climate Resilience Centre conducted a protest on 26th June, near an outfall on Worthing Beach. The prolonged release cited by the group (25th June, 6 days) was caused by an error - computer code became corrupted after being transferred between Southern Water, The Environment Agency and Surfers Against Sewage’s Safer Seas and Rivers app. Surfers Against Sewage have acknowledged this problem and we collaborated with them to quickly rectify the error. They have assured us that they have taken steps to prevent this re-occurring.
The outfall that was the backdrop to the protest is not a storm overflow – it is used to channel surface water to prevent flooding and is not connected to the foul water system. Better surface water management, especially in the face of urbanisation and climate change, is a core principle of our work to tackle storm overflow releases.
We have submitted our comprehensive proposals to reduce storm overflows across our region to the Secretary of State. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss our proposals – and what this means for coastal waters in Worthing - with you.
With best wishes,
Head of Public Affairs and Advocacy
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Strengthening environmental civil sanctions
I’m pleased to confirm that the Government has today laid legislation before Parliament to strengthen environmental civil sanctions and provide the environmental regulators with the tools they need to hold operators to account.
Currently, the maximum variable monetary penalty that can be imposed for a wide range of environmental offences is capped at £250,000. This is not an effective deterrent for very large operators, such as water companies, as it may be cheaper for them to pay the penalty, or several penalties, than to solve the underlying issue. We are therefore removing the cap entirely to make the penalty unlimited, meaning that penalties can be proportionate to the degree of environmental harm and culpability and can act as a powerful deterrent. Strong safeguards are in place, including the ability of an offender to pay, when regulators determine the size of penalties. The Environment Agency will use the independent Sentencing Council guidelines to underpin all penalties.
We are also introducing unlimited variable monetary penalties as a civil sanction for offences under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, so in future the Environment Agency has all the tools it needs to change the behaviour of organisations who break the law.
We know that people across the country want to see more progress in tackling pollution and if operators breach regulations, our environmental regulators need the right powers to impose penalties. These new penalty changes will deter organisations from polluting and increase their incentive to comply with environmental regulations. We will not let companies get away with illegal activity and where breaches are found, we will hold companies to account. Furthermore, all funding from fines and penalties handed out to water companies that pollute our rivers and seas will be invested in schemes that benefit our natural environment.
This legislation follows our recent consultation, first announced in the Plan for Water, which received overwhelming support from the public.
In particular, these changes are one element of a broader set of reforms which collectively will improve the water environment. Earlier this year, we published the Plan for Water, which marks a step change in how we manage our waters, for water quality and water resources. It is a blueprint for a truly national effort to meet the stretching targets we have set under the Environment Act and the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.
Recent government action includes plans to enshrine the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan further in law through a new statutory target, a requirement for all water companies to provide an action plan for every storm overflow in the country, and new powers for Ofwat that will enable it to take enforcement action against water companies that do not link dividend payments to performance for both customers and the environment.
There should be no doubt that this Government has and will continue to tackle illegal activity which harms our natural environment.
If you would like to discuss this topic further, please do not hesitate to contact me.
REBECCA POW MP
MPs from across Sussex met with Southern Water and regulators, environmental and financial, to discuss urgent concerns regarding ongoing storm overflow and unacceptable levels of untreated discharge into our water courses and bathing areas.
We all understand that the quality of our bathing water matters to our local communities. Our seaside economy relies significantly on our high-quality beaches and bathing waters.
Residents 𝗺𝘂𝘀𝘁 be able to enjoy our beaches and swim safely.
It is not enough to quote what has been done or to list difficulties, but rather, it is necessary to overcome the problems and do what needs to be done.
Everyone in a community suffers when unacceptable waste is found along the beach and when sensitive river environments are poisoned by untreated discharges from main drains.
We expect water quality to improve as our systems become more efficient and effective and we recognise the improvements to date.
Collaboration between Southern Water, the Environment Agency and our local and national government is critical to making the difference.
There must be further progress to compound these improvements.
A number of my constituents have contacted me to share their concerns about the Storm Overflow Discharge Plan outlined by the Government earlier this year.
In this Plan, the Government sets new targets to improve our sewage systems:
• By 2035, water companies will have: improved all overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water; and improved 75% of overflows discharging to high priority sites.
• By 2050, no storm overflows will be permitted to operate outside of unusually heavy rainfall or to cause any adverse ecological harm.
I would have hoped that the targets outlined in the Plan could be implemented sooner.
However, due to the complex nature of our Victorian sewage systems, we need to be realistic about the timeframes in which our systems can be updated to avoid storm overflow discharges.
I continue to remain in regular contact with Southern Water and the Environment Agency about the safety of Worthing’s bathing waters.
I met with Katy Taylor, Chief Customer Officer at Southern Water's headquarters here in Worthing, to discuss resilience planning and to see their response room.
This came as part of ongoing work to address the severe concerns with storm-overflow in Worthing, Arun and across the UK. We must focus on this year-round, not just when it becomes an issue most acutely during the summer 'bathing' months.
We share an interest in avoiding simple and common issues, encouraging proactive preventative work, creating an appropriate regulatory regime and encouraging better customer and community relations.
The widespread flooding five years ago remains a constant concern of many. Simple but vital precautions must be taken to ensure that critical infrastructure is protected.
It is encouraging to hear about the extra monitoring, control systems and management put into the pumping station network to prevent future issues on the scale of last summer.
The challenge with surface water removal and storm overflow continues.
We recognise the need for greater cooperation between our local councils and utility services.
Planning matters: many small changes have a compound effect on big issues. Paving over front lawns, leaving brooks overgrown and building across our green fields all worsen the issues of storm overflow and sewage flow into our bathing waters.
Let us do what is necessary, across all levels of government and industry, to better protect our bathing waters and aquatic environments.
It is also good to hear that Southern Water will be raising their social tariff to better support those most struggling with the cost of living crisis. Such information will be gladly included when speaking with vulnerable community members.
We all understand how much the quality of our bathing water matters to our local communities. Our seaside economy relies significantly on our high-quality beaches and bathing waters. Residents must be able to enjoy our beaches peacefully and safely.
There needs to be a realistic way forward for water treatment companies to address this serious issue. Sewage entering our watercourses is wrong. We expect Southern Water to do better.
In recent weeks I have been in close communication with Southern Water and the Environment Agency with extreme concern for the quality of our bathing waters.
Most recently, I co-signed a letter to Southern Water and the Environment Agency alongside MPs from across Sussex, calling for an urgent meeting with both organisations. A copy of the letter is here.
I have also written directly to the leadership of Southern Water demanding a further explanation of the recent apparent build-up of toxic-smelling silt around the outlet pipe on Worthing Beach as well as requesting a comprehensive plan on how the company will tackle and eliminate the release of raw sewage through storm overflows.
I commit to raising this further with Parliamentary Colleagues when we return after recess.
We should expect water quality to be on a continued and sustained path to improvement as our systems become more efficient and effective. There must be progress.
I was advised of an emergency evacuation of parts of Worthing Beach undertaken by the Beach Control Team due to a worrying large slick of black oil observed to be emanating from around a Southern Water outflow pipe.
My team and I were in immediate contact with Southern Water to request that pollution investigators attended the site urgently. Within hours, a team had been dispatched to the area adjacent to Heene Road to test the bathing water.
We have received assurances that the most likely reason for the change in the appearance of the seawater is a build-up of silt around the outfall.
The samples taken are reported to have contained no ammonia, meaning that there was no foul spillage. The investigator then took samples from the Lido up to Steyne Gardens which also showed no ammonia. An urgent request has been made for the dirtied shingle to be removed from around the outfall to remove the built-up material.
We celebrate the work of our Beach Control Teams, as well as our Coastguard and Lifeboat Service. They work hard to keep our beaches safe and accessible for all.
The quality of our water matters greatly not least to our seaside economy that relies greatly on our high-quality beaches and bathing waters.
Water quality is vastly improving. We should expect it to continue to improve as our systems become more efficient and effective. Let us continue to campaign and work hard in support of this.
In June every year, we recognise #WorldOceansDay.
I share in a belief that we must take urgent action now to safeguard the world’s oceans and protect the precious wildlife that inhabits them.
I took the opportunity to celebrate 32 years of good work by Surfers Against Sewage.
It is positive to know that 38 per cent of UK waters are in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
We can welcome plans to increase protections for England’s waters through a pilot to designate marine sites as Highly Protected Marine Areas.
There is more that needs to be done.
Our oceans and our seas are directly affected by what goes into our rivers. We recognise the urgent need to stop the routine spilling of sewage discharge into our waterways which causes so much damage to our rivers and our oceans.
I have been vocal in my opposition to the unlawful release of raw sewage into bodies of water for many years, and in my support for groups such as Surfers Against Sewage.
Some constituents have contacted me who are under the misapprehension that I have voted to allow the continued dumping of sewage in our seas.
Be assured that this is not the case.
Southern Water have informed me of their creation of the Clean Rivers and Seas Task Force, which seeks to significantly reduce storm overflows by 2030.
I intend to continue to meet regularly with representatives from Southern Water and the Environmental Health Agency, along with fellow Sussex MPs, to discuss the continuing release of sewage into our waters.
This issue remains a priority.
Bathing waters across the South East, especially here in Worthing and Arun, have achieved their highest ever ratings in Defra’s Bathing Water summer sampling regime.
Here in Worthing, the quality of bathing water has increased from 'Sufficient' in 2019 to 'Good' in 2021. Likewise along the Arun coast, the 5 bathing water ratings have increased from two 'excellent' and three 'good' in 2019 to three 'excellent' and two 'good' in 2021.
Many will know that I was vocal in calling for stricter regulations around sewage overflow discharge into our water sources. Sewage overflow is but one of many factors that affects the quality of our waters.
I will continue to work with the new management team at Southern Water, in close collaboration with our local councils, regulators and organisations, to continue to increase the standard of our bathing waters.
The recognition of our high-quality bathing waters only emboldens our work to further defend the quality of our waters.
Thank you for contacting me about sewage pollution and the Environment Bill. Surfers Against Sewage could have informed you that I am a long-standing supporter of their cause and fully support better protection of our rivers and seas. Likewise, they could have better publicised their support which they gave vocally on BBC Radio 4 on the 10th November.
I was one of the very few Conservative MPs to vote in favour of the Lords Amendment and against the Government’s amendment to the Environment Bill.
Along with neighbouring MP, Tim Loughton, we have long been vocal in our opposition to the unlawful release of raw sewage into bodies of water.
As you may know, Southern Water is headquartered in Worthing and are well aware of my position.
I voted to support the Government's amended Environment bill enshrining the progressive obligation that I united in calling for as part of the Lord's Amendment.
The Lord's Amendment put a progressive obligation on the water treatment companies. This has long been Government policy but for some reason the Government decided to reject the amendment which sought to enshrine this policy in law.
I united with several other colleagues in doing what the Government ought to do anyway.
In response, the Government proposed that it would bring in its own amendment to achieve what the Lord's Amendment sought.
Last night's vote was not controversial. The House supported what the Minister put forward and the Lord's aim was achieved. Surfers Against Sewage have recognised that it is a major step in the right direction. We are all agreed that there is much more to do.
There needs to be a realistic way forward for water treatment companies to effectively deal between excess effluent water and rainwater. Sewage entering our watercourses is not right. Rainwater entering our watercourses is what has been going on for thousands of years.
I believe that Southern Water's previous management knowingly did things that were wrong. The present management does not. We ought to trust the new regime and hold them to their own expectations as well as ours.
Water quality is vastly improving. We should expect it to continue to improve as our systems become more efficient and effective. Just 60 years ago, untreated sewage entered our bathing water in a constant stream. That was pretty grim but we can be confident that the situation today is enormously different.
The more we know about achieving better results, the more we should implement them.
The quality of our water matters greatly not least to our seaside economy that relies greatly on our high-quality beaches and bathing waters.