Bacteria monitoring and investment pledges made at Southern Water public meeting in Ramsgate

Panel members at the Southern Water meeting Photo Ramsgate SOS

Real time monitoring of bacteria in our coastal waters, a £300million investment in Kent and a Southern Water stakeholder group for Thanet are some of the things pledged by water company chiefs at a meeting in Ramsgate last night (April 21).

Some 120 people attended the gathering at Royal Harbour Academy so that they could put their questions to Southern Water CEO Ian McAulay and Dr Toby Wilson, the water company’s chief of environment and sustainability.

The panel included Thanet council leader Ash Ashbee, county councillor Karen Constantine, Sally Harvey from the Environment Agency and was chaired by South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay.

Campaigners from SOS Ramsgate, who had been pushing for the meeting since last year, were among those attending.

The meeting was arranged to discuss Southern Water’s improvement plans in light of wastewater releases that shut a large number of the isle’s beaches in June and October last year. Those incidents prompted a number of public protest rallies.

Photo Steven Collis

Giving a presentation, Ian McAulay (pictured) said Thanet is in “the most water stressed region I have ever worked in.”

He added: “We can’t keep taking water from the environment, but we have got to make sure we have got enough.”

He said part of the solution was the Target 100 scheme where people reduce personal consumption to an average of 100 litres each per day by 2040 while Southern Water reduces leakage by 15% by 2025 and 40% by 2040.

Using water butts, porous surfacing and nature-based solutions – which include soakaways and tree pits -were also suggested.

The CEO, who is a civil and environmental engineer by trade, said pollution came from the combined water system – rainfall, surface water and sewer water all in the same pipes – agriculture and highways.

But he said with industries working together storm overflows – where water overwhelms the system and has to be released into the sea through outfall pipes – would become “a thing of the past.”

Southern Water aims to cut storm overflow releases by 80% by 2030. The aging system has capacity for dry weather flow but has to deploy releases during high intensity rainfall.

Mr McAulay, who revealed he will soon be retiring, said investment had been made in infrastructure and more was planned but changes in planning regulations are also needed. He said: “We do not have a right of refusal for new developments but what I want is to be able to refuse to connect the wrong thing. I don’t want water inefficiency; we need a sustainable development policy.”

He said there should be requirements for porous materials and sustainable drainage systems (SUDS) for new developments. He also said he wants compulsory water metering in homes which would lead to a “massive reduction in consumption” and efficiency labelling on every water consumptive device.

Water quality was a major concern raised during the meeting, from the safety of bathing waters to requests for testing of drinking water.

Nethercourt councillor Anne-Marie Nixey

Cllr Anne-Marie Nixey, speaking on behalf of Ramsgate Town Council, said there were particular concerns over the quality of water from the aquifer (at Manston airport) and contamination by Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), which are ‘forever’ chemicals linked with areas such as airports and military firefighting foam. The same issue was raised by Cllr Becky Wing who said she was also concerned about pollution from bunkering- – transferring fuel oil from one ship to another vessel alongside off the coastline.

A spokesman from the Edge Group said his company had looked after the Manston aquifer but owners RSP had dispensed with their services. The speaker added: “Any incident there could contaminate our drinking water.” Cllr Ashbee said she would take the matter up with RSP.

The following day, Tony Freudmann of RSP, said Edge Enviro had been commissioned by Stone Hill Park several years ago to manage any spillages if the site was used for lorry parking but there had been no contact with RSP. He added that the Environment Agency had been in charge of managing risks during the site’s use for lorry parking last year and the aquifer comes under Southern Water’s supervision.

Reparations to the community for the wastewater release incidents last year were raised with a request from Barry Manners, of the Kingsgate and Botany Bay volunteer group, for further funding to employ a beach cleaner. Southern Water already subsidises a cleaner for 10 hours a week. Mr Manners wanted this increased to 30 hours and for it to run into 2023.

Inside the Margate Wastewater Pumping station

Cllr Ashby said she would co-ordinate arrangements so other volunteer groups on the isle also had the opportunity for funding.

Mr McAulay said £300m was being invested in Kent projects and £250k had been contributed to Thanet families in need.

Dr Wilson said the investment in real-time monitoring of bacteria in water is being trialled in Hayling Island and would be rolled out and there would be extra investment in the Beach Buoy system.

Photo Steven Collis

Cllr Constantine said answers being given were “too vague” and not “specific details and plans.” She added: “You (Southern Water) need to commit to a proper community engagement strategy, setting up a stakeholder group and investing in our community.”

Mr McAulay said all councils had Southern Water’s investment plans and project details and pumping station sites were being opened to more visitors. The stakeholder group was agreed. Dr Wilson said talks were also taking place with Thanet council about improvements to public toilets with water efficient facilities.

A request for citizen water testing kits did not get the green light. A question about whether pumping stations were reaching the speeds specified in their permits remained unanswered due to the Environment Agency currently carrying out an investigation into the issue which could result in prosecution.

Cllr Binks spoke at the meeting

Broadstairs councillor Ros Binks said filth on the beaches damaged Thanet’s tourism industry and hit local businesses, adding: “If beaches start looking dirty then forget about the summer season, 95% of people come to Thanet for the sea, sand and beaches.

“It takes a long time to get a reputation back if they see filth on our beaches.”

SOS campaigners including Karen Constantine (on right)

Following the meeting Cllr Constantine said: ““Last night’s public meeting with Southern  Water was well run but very heavily stage managed, tickets had to be booked on line and questions submitted in advance, and being held at Royal Harbour School meant it was a difficult location for many to attend.

“Along with other activists such as SOS Ramsgate there have been sustained efforts to make this meeting happen. We all agree that the importance of water safety can not be understated. I was disappointed to see Craig Mackinlay acting as chair rather than answering questions about his role in Parliament securing improvements in legislation and holding Southern Water to account on our behalf.

“Last night we were effectively given two key pieces of information -there will be improvements to the infrastructure. But this information wasn’t as specific as we need it to be and improvements must be made because Thanet water supply is ‘under stress’ and in order to get these improvements we’ll see a rise in our water bills.

Photo Rebecca Douglas

“After raising the issue of the formation of a stakeholder group several times, Southern Water finally agreed to this. I believe this will be invaluable going forward and may assist the company to rebuild its reputation and improve its service to us.

“Many of us understand there are steps we can take as individuals, being careful to only flush our toilets with the 3 P’s, pee, poo and paper, to collect rain water and to allow rain water to soak away, rather than run off concrete drives, patios etc.

“There were insightful suggestions from the audience about what more should be done with regard to planning. Why isn’t planning and the national planning framework being used as a tool to protect water? Why isn’t the Government taking more proactive steps? A vital question with all the proposed house building in Thanet and one which our local MP missed.

“Southern Water have a long way to go, but at least they have started to listen. We will keep the pressure on.”

Southern Water work to cut ‘storm’ releases into Thanet’s coastline – but campaigners say more action is needed