South West Water pleads poverty and tells East Devon residents to “do their bit” to prevent sewage overflows into rivers and seas.
Joe Ives, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk
People living in Devon need to do their bit to help prevent sewage overflows going into rivers and the sea, according to a boss at South West Water (SWW).
It follows a year of controversy for the private company, whose sewage dumping has come under increasing scrutiny after it was revealed it made 42,000 raw discharges into Devon’s rivers and coastal areas in 2020.
Speaking at a meeting of the overview and scrutiny committee at East Devon District Council (EDDC), Alan Burrows, director of environmental liaison and culture for South West Water, argued that people should consider their own actions in addressing the problem and that the company wants to “educate” people on their personal responsibility.
“We can do many things,” he said, “but we can’t do it alone. South West Water can build systems, it can create treatment works – but ultimately those treatment works are built to receive certain things.
“Those certain things aren’t armchairs, they’re not bricks, they’re not wet wipes etcetera etcetera, which is surprisingly what we find in our networks.”
The main thing, he said, is to “love your loo,” pointing to a campaign by South West Water to promote the “three P’s: pee, poo and paper.”
“That’s what we should be receiving and that’s what we should be treating. If everybody did that we would remove 4,500 blockages a year because we wouldn’t have wet wipes blocking it.
“We wouldn’t have oils and greases blocking up the network as well which can create those instances when the storm overflows operate at the wrong time.”
The company says 200,000 wet wipes found in South West Water’s sewers in 2021, enough to fill 11 double-decker buses.
Mr Burrows said storm overflows of sewage are a “necessity” because SWW has an ageing system with surface water and sewage going to the same network and an increasing demand on it caused by a growing population and high numbers of tourists.
East Devon has had more than its fair share of sewage problems recently. Problems have been particularly acute for residents of Clyst St Mary. The village was flooded with sewage at least 11 times last year, with South West Water offering portable loos to the worst affected households, some of which were left without working toilets for up to 60 hours at a time.
The situation attracted criticism from local councillors and East Devon’s Conservative MP Simon Jupp.
Speaking at a previous EDDC meeting councillor Eleanor Rylance (Lib Dems, Democratic Alliance Group, Broadclyst) said: “We actually have turds in the streets in some places when it rains, and that’s really not on.
“We can’t have poo in the streets, we can’t have poo in the rivers and we can’t have poo in the sea. We need to find out why it’s happening and get it sorted out.”
Overflow pipes for sewage (courtesy: BBC Panorama)
Members thanked Mr Burrows for coming to speak to the council, but with only an hour in his schedule for both his presentation and a follow-up Q&A, the meeting raised more questions than answers.
In the brief session, the SWW boss was questioned by members of the public as well as councillors.
In a dramatic piece of staging, local resident Geoff Crawford attended the morning meeting, held on Zoom, standing at the end of a combined sewage overflow pipe in Exmouth.
He said: “The pipe that I’m stood on top of, it’s two hours from low tide and it’s completely exposed.
“I swim in the sea most mornings and I’ve realised that there’s a back eddy here and it doesn’t matter if the tide is going in or going out, the sewage comes in because the back eddy brings the sewage even when the tides going out to the beach.
“No amount of sewage discharge is acceptable, and that’s where you should start as a basis.”
Mr Burrows responded, saying he agreed that any sewage released into Devon’s waters is not good but defended his company, saying “it is technically challenging and it isn’t something we can do alone.”
Local resident Geoff Crawford quizzes South West Water at an East Devon District Council meeting
It will take money to fix the problems. As a private business SWW gets to choose where that money goes. The company is owned by Exeter-based Pennon Group plc, which is listed on the FTSE 250.
It made £157 million in pre-tax profit in the 2020/21 financial year. In that time South West Water’s CEO Susan Davy received a bonus of more than £370,000, on top of her £475,000 base salary.
Commenting last year about concerns over flooding in East Devon, South West Water’s engineering director Matt Crabtree said: “We are committed to delivering a permanent solution which will involve detailed works and upgrades to our network.”
Speaking after Mr Burrow’s presentation to EDDC, Councillor Tom Wright (Conservative, Budleigh and Raleigh), chair of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee, said it could be beneficial for the committee to come up with recommendations on “how we can keep South West Water’s hand on the stove so to speak.”
The committee agreed that it would invite the company back for more detailed discussions in the near future.