MPs create a stink on England’s coasts with environment vote

Locals call them “Filth”: Failed In London, Try Hastings. These exiles from the UK’s capital, now enjoying a calmer lifestyle in this seaside town, laugh at their nickname — a beach on the doorstep is excellent compensation for a bit of ridicule. But this summer it all became a bit too, well, filthy, for blow-ins and natives alike.

For much of the bathing season, the sea that laps the Sussex town has been hazardous for swimmers because of raw sewage released into the water. “At low tide you can see sanitary products, sometimes human faeces on the sand,” says Matt McDonnell of the Hastings and St Leonard’s Clear Water Action group. He and about 200-300 other regular local swimmers have been organising, as have other groups along the south coast of England, to protest against repeated dumping of untreated waste, made worse by recent heavy rains.

“People feel powerless,” says McDonnell. “We look at the clean bathing award flag flying over Hastings beach and it’s just a joke.”

Swimmers multiplied during the pandemic when a dip in the sea became what one recent evacuee from London calls “our local Prozac”. Now they are horrified to find that regulations allow the local utility, Southern Water, and other privatised water companies, to release untreated sewage on to the beaches via Combined Sewage Overflows — which hold waste along with excess rainwater and release the mix into the environment.

Swimmers use a Surfers Against Sewage app to look for warnings about recent CSOs nearby, or regularly refresh the Southern Water “Beach Buoy” map for notifications of recent releases — but they are advised by the company to “use their own discretion when entering the water”. 

One enthusiastic year-round swimmer told me she relies on asking others whether they feel sick or have picked up any ear or eye infections after bathing. “All the way round the coast the map shows up red — a trail of red warnings — even if it says no dumping for 72 hours, is that long enough?”

Some of the discharge is unauthorised. In July, Southern Water was fined a record £90m for illegal pollution during 2010-2015. It was also singled out for criticism by the regulator, the Environment Agency, for missing anti-pollution targets. In 2019 three of its staff were convicted of obstructing the collection of data by the agency.

Last week the House of Commons rejected an amendment to the environment bill that would have introduced tougher measures against discharging raw sewage. The government says the bill already includes provisions to “deliver progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows”.

But the backlash against Conservative MPs who voted down the non-partisan amendment, introduced by the House of Lords, is building. Local papers and Facebook groups are indignant. When the bill returns to the Commons again this week, the government may find itself embarrassed over custodianship of the environment just as delegates arrive for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Over the weekend, a protest in Margate was bolstered by reinforcements from Whitstable along the north Kent coast. Whitstable’s famous oysters have made it a fashionable foodie destination but the sewage pollution halted harvesting this summer after an outbreak of food poisoning.

There is one point of agreement in this dispute — that, after decades of under-investment, Victorian sewers cannot cope with the volume of waste. According to the government, £150bn may be needed to update the storm overflows alone. MPs who toed the line say they were protecting consumers from exorbitant costs being added to household bills.

But the failure to renew the infrastructure, against a background of generous dividends paid out by the water monopolies has undermined the whole model in the eyes of consumers such as McDonnell: “We can’t vote with our feet — in any other business you have choice whether to pay or not for a good service.” 

In the meantime, he’s not optimistic about the effects on the local economy, from fishing to tourist cafés: “What’s a beach town without a beach?”

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