1 February 2022
Wessex Water managers were grilled for nearly two hours by a panel of BCP councillors, over the company's record of raw sewage overflow discharges into the sea at sites spanning most of the Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch coastline. The hearing at BCP Council's Overview & Scrutiny Committee had been secured by Green Councillor Chris Rigby.
There were over 400,000 raw sewage discharges into UK waterways in 2020. A report last year shows that the Wessex Water area now has the third-worst record in England. [View interactive map of local discharge sites...] Storm overflows are supposed to be used only during extreme weather, to relieve pressure on the sewer system.
Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage issued a widespread "do not swim" alert for Dorset last autumn based on Environment Agency data. BBC Dorset have recently reported on open-water swimmers' complaints that the repeated discharges are making them ill. Last November Dorset Oysters had to recall its produce over norovirus concerns, calling it a "direct consequence" of local sewage discharges into the sea.
Chris Rigby led the councillor response of united concern to the Town Hall presentations from Wessex Water. He criticised their claims that media coverage of the issue has been "sensationalised". Chris said to them: "I don't think that's correct at all. These are becoming more and more reported stories, yes, and that's because it's important." He highlighted that Christchurch Avon Beach is ranked the 17th worst site in the country in campaigners' monitoring of people becoming ill after entering the water.
Councillor Rigby also told Wessex Water he was concerned that water quality is only being routinely tested during the summer season - when there are all-year-round users of the local sea including cold-water swimmers and surfers.
There was widespread disbelief from councillors and media at the Wessex Water reps suggesting that swimming in the local sea is okay if you don't open your mouth, and that there are always bacteria in the sea anyway. They also cited that sewage overflow up to 10 times per year on average is not illegal, implying it is not a priority for them to reduce occurrences below this legal tolerance level unless and until the law is tightened.
Water, a natural monopoly industry, was the most controversial of Margaret Thatcher's privatisations in 1989. Since then Wessex Water have assuredly prioritised dividend payments to shareholders, which have totalled some £1.1 billion.
All but one councillor present at the cross-party meeting agreed to recommend that BCP Council's environment chief should lobby local MPs and the regulator Ofwat, expressing concern at the frequent use of sewage overflow discharges and calling for Government action to improve water quality.