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.