Southern Water pledges to make “transformational” changes

Southern Water discharges affected Thanet beaches Photo John Horton

By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan

Southern Water has pledged to make “transformational” changes to its local infrastructure to protect Kent’s local environment amid spillage concerns.

Kent County Council’s (KCC) environment committee was told  millions will be invested into revamping sewers to create “sustainable” drainage over the next five years.

Councillors said the county’s drainage systems need “upgrading” as the Victorian-era systems “cannot cope” and wastewater has flown into Kent’s beaches and into the sea.

Cranbrook county councillor Sean Holden (Con), who is KCC’s environment committee chair, said: “There is a huge infrastructure change that needs to be made.”

His comments came during an online debate involving a representative from Southern Water and a committee of county councillors.

Dr Toby Wilson, Southern Water’s director of environment and corporate affairs, said major actions were being taken to deal with the leakages.

He said: “When the system is overwhelmed by rainfall there is a risk of material backing up and flooding homes and businesses.”

On spillages into the local environment, he said: “This is increasingly not acceptable to our customers and we are doing something about this.”

Plans have been launched for a storm overflow taskforce in Swale, Margate, Deal, the Isle of Wight and Hampshire as part of a wider investment plan to reduce pollution incidents.

Actions will involve increasing sewer capacity, greater monitoring of networks, along with nature-based solutions, such as rain gardens and ponds.

Dr Wilson said: “We believe these nature based solutions will make a massive difference to the frequency of spilling.”

This comes after Southern Water were fined a record £90million for widespread pollution in the south of England, which caused harm to protected areas, conversation sites and oyster beds.

The firm pleaded guilty to 6,791 un-permitted sewer charges in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 and 2015.

Last year, the firm came under fire for sewer discharges on Kent’s coasts, namely in Thanet and Whitstable, with reports of people falling ill after taking a dip in the sea.

Canterbury city councillor Ashley Clark was one of several frustrated residents who have since refused to pay their bills amid the ongoing  scandal.

Whitstable East and Herne Bay West county councillor Neil Baker (Con), who is also a Canterbury city councillor, said: “We have seen people unable to swim in the sea, particularly during times of lockdown.

“We have an appalling situation where one of our main shellfish operators is having to import oysters from Jersey because they cannot be sure what is going into the sea.”

Dr Wilson said the firm was “profoundly” apologetic. He said: “We are working tremendously hard to make it better.”

Since 2016, the water utility company says it has been through a “massive transformational” inward change, including a new chief executive.

Commitments have been made to invest more cash to improve the sewer infrastructure in Kent.

This includes £22million being invested into protection schemes in Thanet, sealing chalk adits to prevent leaking sewers into the chalk.

Another £6million will be spent on refurbishing Margate’s pumping station.

Cllr Holden, who called for a harmonious resolution, said: “Let’s move into a positive relationship with Southern Water, especially with the sewers, which is a looming disaster for our society.”

Southern Water has been asked to report back to KCC’s environment committee in the autumn of this year.


  1. Transformational changes to protect their gross and indefensible profits more like it. These cowboys are totally unaccountable. They are a private monopoly that should be bought back into public ownership a.s.a.p

  2. I spoke at meeting,told the public relations employee that his company had become a disgrace (used a four letter to explain the anger of thanet residents).put people before profit

  3. I am old enough to remember when Thanet proudly boasted of our “Blue Flag beaches”. Or when we were told that our national rivers were becoming ever cleaner with otters returning to every County (except Kent, at first!) and salmon were entering the Thames.
    Was all that just nonsense? Or have things started to get worse again, after a brief period of improvement around 10 to 15 years ago?
    I am genuinely asking because the contrast with the current dire situation is so stark, I am beginning to wonder if we were just being conned about the previous clean-up.

    • There was “ operation clean sweep” in the 80’s/ 90’s to bring sewage systems upto standard, the northforeland pumping station opened in 88 iirc. ( before that sewage disharges werecrarely more than 400 yds below the low water mark. That we have combined systems ( surface run off and sewage) as a historical inheritance makes things more complicated and dividing them is nigh on impossible . At the time uk population was 57 million its now 67 million. How much has thanet grown in that time?
      Society has embraced the wet wipe with great enthusiasm , ask southern water for some data on the non human waste they screen from our sewage and the number of blockages they remove year in year out.
      It’ll take huge sums and years to upgrade again.

  4. All they have to do is, extend the sewage tunnels to take the muck further out. No massive undertaking by adding a mile to each tube.

  5. BTB (by the by) building a desalination/purification plant in Sandwich 20 years ago would have cost £20 million. Now it would cost 20 times that.

  6. I bet ruth is gonna come on here and give us a piece of her mind. southern water are not in the wrong and have never done anything illegal ever.

  7. What about the allegations that the discharges were deliberate because it’s more profitable to dump untreated sewage into the sea than it is to invest in efficient treatment plants? We went through something similar up here in Yorkshire. It took 10 years of campaigning and an instruction to Yorkshire Water from the Environment Agency to force the company to invest in efficient treatment processes to deal with the industrial and domestic waste of Leeds and Bradford.

  8. Where is the plan? Where is the document that itemises the steps they will be taking and the timeline? Meeting again in Autumn without any specific deliverables is just kicking the can down the road.
    Councillors have been fobbed off with empty promises and what sounds like a lot of money but really £28m (£22m + £6m) will barely make a difference.
    As for ‘Let’s move into a positive relationship with Southern Water’ – SW must have been laughing all the way home!

  9. ‘On spillages into the local environment, he said: “This is increasingly not acceptable to our customers and we are doing something about this.”’
    We customers have *never* accepted this situation.

    Meanwhile, a quick, cheap and easy action that can be taken is for people who’ve paved over their gardens did something to make the paving permeable, so when the heavy rains come, at least some of the water will soak into the ground, instead of flashing straight into the drains and overwhelming the pumping station

  10. Nationalise the water industry? Then we could have an organisation like TDC Who obviously take notice of everything that we say! I don’t think so! The problem with the water industry is that it works under the rules set by OFWAT, The EA, and Parliament and each have said that releasing sewage is OK. Now we, the people are saying that it is not OK and plans are afoot to change this unacceptable scenario. To add storm drains into the system will be difficult and expensive, but necessary to achieve zero spillage. After all, having no backup generators in times of electricity outage is crazy and was poor management. Somehow we will need to see what deliverables are promised and then work out how we can monitor the progress over the coming years. I don’t feel that we can trust the monitoring from the likes of TDC, but a legal framework involving the EA, Ofwat, and the contract with the water companies has the best chance of success.

    • But there were backup generators. The lightning strike knocked out the control system.
      Neither the EU nor Parliament has said that releasing sewage is ok … other than in the most dire of circimstances; for example a huge downpour overwhelms the sewers, and the choice is either release into rivers/sea or flood people’s kitchens and bathrooms with raw sewage.

      • There are always ways to get pumps back online when a lightning strike occurs. This is common practice on ships where lightning strikes are more common. And as there were 100000 releases of sewage across the country every year it is implied by definition that such discharges are acceptable. Parliament did vote to accept discharges and reversed their opinions when the voters turned on them.

        • And indeed, the generators were got going, and the pumps started up. But it was not possible (because of the lightning strike damaging equipment) to do this remotely. Engineers had to physically attend.
          This is by no way an excuse for the dreadful experiences we in Thanet have suffered at the hands of Southern Water for years.

  11. It appears to be more economical to pay the fine besides paying the shareholders their dividend.
    What ever sum is required to fix and upgrade the system the customers will pay along with the fine.
    I see no point in fining the company unless it comes from their Public liability insurance(PL). However, if directors and managers were held responsible they might soon buck their ideas up and take out their own PL insurance then when ever a claim was made against them personally their insurance premium would increase.
    If a householder puts a skip or building materials on the public highway KCC insist that the householder take out a £20m liability insurance.

  12. I feel that to ask Southern Water to report in the Autumn is not enough. Can anyone tell me if there are:
    1. A detailed plan (including financial implications) for the work to be done by Southern Water over the next months?
    2. Has this plan been made public? and where can we find it?
    3. Is there a mechanism for the Council to check on the advancement of the works to be done at least monthly?

    • It’d also be interesting to know the total amount collected as “infrastructure charges” for new connections of both water supply and sewerage for new homes, businesses and conversions of premises into smaller units.

      And seeing as that money was collected on the basis of it being for provision of additional capacity , where that money went.

  13. This is a very misleading headline, given that the quote “Since 2016, the water utility company says it has been through a “massive transformational” inward change, including a new chief executive.” is very much past tense, and your headline suggests they are about to make such changes.

  14. Please excuse me while I pick myself up off the floor due to excessive laughter. LOL. Souther Water are a toxic company who don’t give a monkeys breath about us bill payers until we can’t pay. Bills rise and pollution gets worse is the mantra.
    Believe it when I see no pumping into the rivers or sea. Thanet waste will still be pumped out to sea for many years to come.

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