The sewage scandal


Sewage washes over our rivers and beaches; Tory government responds at a glacial pace.

A timeline.

Sign our petition to get our rivers and beaches cleaned up.

Update and summary 24th April 2023

The water companies are still being allowed to get away with outrageous levels of pollution of our rivers and coastlines.

Last year, raw sewage was spilled into English rivers by water companies 824 times a day. Southern Water dumped sewage into our region's rivers and seas on 16,668 occasions - for a total of 146,819 hours. (Source: Environment Agency)

Across the Lewes constituency alone, last year there were 956 sewage spills. That's an increase of 30% on the previous year. And the duration of those sewage spills increased by a massive 74%. That's 10,524 hours of sewage, pumped untreated into our local rivers and seas.

In Lewes itself, Ham Lane saw 2,419 hours of sewage being pumped into our precious Ouse. An appalling 146 separate 'spills' were recorded - the second highest number in the entire Southern Water area. This one Lewes site accounted for 16% of the company's entire sewage discharges by duration, across four counties.

Side by side maps showing sewage discharges for 2021 and 2022 in Lewes constituency. The figures for 2022 are nearly all worse at every outlet, and several outlets are shown to have non-functioning monitors, so the discharge rate is unknown.
Maps of sewage discharges in Lewes constituency for 2021 and 2022

In Newhaven, Southern Water discharged raw sewage into the mouth of the Ouse on 86 occasions, for a total of 500 hours. That's the equivalent of pumping sewage day and night for three weeks.

Ditchling saw over 1,200 hours of sewage released into the Bevern stream with 81 spills.

At Alfriston, Southern water's sewage dumping doubled in 2022 to over 1,000 hours in 62 spills.

Sussex beaches were among the worst hit by profiteering water companies freely dumping sewage, Liberal Democrat analysis of Environment Agency data has revealed. (Source: The Guardian)

All these figures are scary enough, but Southern Water, like other water firms, only records the number of spills and their duration. So we don't know the volume of sewage being released.

"Southern Water, which spilled sewage into waters home to shellfish 4,041 times last year, has come under fire this week for not knowing the volume of sewage it is spilling." - The Times, 12 April

The reality is that we have no idea just how dirty our waters are. In Seaford, two monitors were faulty, as was one in Newhaven, recording no or partial data in 2022. It suggests the true scale of sewage dumping in our area could be even greater.

Nationally, it is outrageous that this equipment is left broken whilst water company executives rake in multi-million pound bonuses.

So why are the Conservatives letting them off the hook?

Remember, our local Conservative MP voted against making sewage dumping illegal. Maria Caulfield voted against an amendment that would have imposed a legal duty on water companies to stop sewage entering rivers.

And she recently excused Southern Water's horrendous sewage figures by claiming the water company had dumped "significantly less" sewage in 2022 than in the previous year. (Source: Sussex Express 4 April)

In fact, the number of sewage spills in the Lewes constituency from Southern Water rose in 2022, by 30%. The duration of releases went up by a staggering 74%. And Southern Water also DOUBLED its number of breaches of storm overflow permits, from 77 to 195, making it by far the worst offender among England's nine water companies. (Source: The Times and The Sunday Times / National Compliance Assessment Database NCAD).

Graph of storm overflow breaches by water company, showing Southern Water as the worst offender in both 2021 and 2022.
Storm overflow graph by company

Maria Caulfield sought to blame these lamentable Southern Water sewage figures on the rain. But 2022 was an exceptionally dry year, in which the UK received only 90% of its long-term annual average rainfall. Incredibly, she even tried to point the finger at residents, tweeting advice not to pave front gardens and to fit water butts.

All this while Lewes constituency is in the 10% most sewage-polluted, ranked 55th for sewage spills out of 543 parliamentary constituencies across England and Wales. (Source: Top of the Poops)

Liberal Democrats have been the leading voice calling out the Government and the water companies on the sewage scandal.

Brighton Argus front page with headline "16,000 sewage dumps in a year".
Argus front page

And we're succeeding. In Parliament recently, the Government caved into the Liberal Democrat campaign to end sewage discharges into rivers, by accepting the party's amendment to the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill. The amendment stops taxpayers' money going to the water companies until they present clear and time-limited plans to end sewage dumping. Until they clean up their act, it is scandalous to give them government handouts at our expense.

The fight continues and we'll keep holding the Government and water companies to account. There is still a long way to go. The Government is still refusing to ban sewage discharges into swimming water and areas where protected wildlife live - and they are still refusing to ban water company CEOs rewarding themselves with bonuses whilst this environmental scandal happens. All the Conservatives can manage is a reheated wet wipe announcement from five years ago.

Will you join us in calling for a ban on these sewage discharges in protected waters, the levying of a sewage tax on water company profits and a ban on water company executives being paid multi-million pound bonuses?

When the Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, visited our constituency recently, he heard for himself how furious rural and coastal communities like ours are about the sewage scandal. We're furious that our favourite swimming places and precious wildlife habitats have become poisoned with raw sewage. The Conservatives have sat back and watched it happen.

The whole thing stinks. If you haven’t signed our petition, do it now.

Update 3rd Feb 2023

The Infrastructure Bank bill currently going through Parliament aims to set up an Infrastructure Bank which will help the UK reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The government accepted a  Liberal Democrat amendment to the bill which means that tax receipts will only be allowed to fund water companies if they produce a costed and timed plan for ending sewage spills into waterways.

Update 25 Jan 2023

Tory MPs voted to approve a series of regulations laid before Parliament by the Environment Secretary. Among them were the Environmental Targets (Water) (England) Regulations 2022

Among them is a target for the amount of phosphorus in waste water "The second target in respect of water is that the load of total phosphorus discharged into freshwaters from relevant discharges is, by 31st December 2038, at least 80% lower than the baseline."

This gives the water companies fifteen years - fifteen years - to get the phosphorus in their water down to a safe level.

The reason this is important is that high phosphorus levels in your body can cause changes that pull calcium out of your bones, making them weak. High phosphorus and calcium levels can also cause calcium deposits in blood vessels, lungs, eyes, and heart, with increased health risks.

LibDems voted against this regulation because we wanted something stronger and more effective, that prioritised people's health over water company profits.

Update 14th Aug 2022

Water company bosses should have their bonuses banned for failing to fix leaks Lib Dem analysis of Company House records finds staggering bonuses whilst local people suffer: Southern Water boss has bonus of £1,719,500.

Update 11th Aug 2022:

Plan to reduce sewage in rivers is shelved by the Government Ministers promised to publish the strategy by September, but Defra now says it will be released ‘in due course’

Update 13th June 2022

‘Negligent’ water companies let dirty rivers go unchecked Hundreds of monitors installed to keep track of sewage discharges do not work most of the time, analysis reveals

Update 9th June 2022

Activists take water regulator to court over sewage in English and Welsh rivers: Environmental group Wild Justice seeks judicial review of Ofwat’s alleged failure to monitor water firms and act on discharges

Update 30th April 2022

Here is a map of the 735 times Southern Water discharged raw sewage into the rivers and seas of this constituency in 2021.

Graphic representation of sewage spills around the Lewes constituency. "Southern Water discharged raw sewage into the rivers and seas around Lewes constituency 735 times in 2021. That's the equivalent of 6,060 hours of discharges. Source: The Rivers Trust."   The map shows twenty four outlets spilling sewage, twenty into rivers and four directly into the sea. The largest is South Street Ditchling with 43 spills over 225 hours into a tributary of the Herrings Stream.
Sewage spills in Lewes constituency 2021

Update 18th Apr 2022

How to turn England’s rivers from filthy sewers into shining streams: how community action can work

Update 6th Apr 2022

Lib Dems put sewage at heart of campaign "some Tory election material on social media has misleadingly accused the Lib Dems of “voting against a legal duty to clean up rivers”. Lib Dem MPs opposed the government’s plans in favour of stronger legal duties backed by opposition parties."

Update 6th Apr 2022

Round up:

Southern Water discharged raw sewage into the rivers and seas around Lewes constituency 670 times in 2021. That’s the equivalent of 6,060 hours of discharges. This is particularly worrying given the increases in the use of our waterways by wild swimmers, paddle-boarders, kayakers and canoeists.

The Conservatives have failed to tackle the sewage problem; they watered down proposals to reduce sewage discharges in the Environment Bill. And last month, Tories voted against our law which would have helped protect wildlife from the pumping of raw sewage. While this Government eventually caved to pressure and amended the Environment Act to do something about sewage discharges, it was nowhere near enough.

Water companies are responsible for this mess, not consumers. Bill payers should not be paying to clean up the mess.

Liberal Democrats are calling for:

  • A Sewage Tax on water companies, forcing them to contribute from their massive profits to cleaning up the damage caused by sewage discharges.

  • Reducing the number of licences the Environment Agency gives to water companies permitting them to discharge raw sewage into waterways.

  • Setting meaningful targets and deadlines for water companies to end sewage discharges into waterways.

  • Adding local environmental groups onto water companies boards, to support water companies in their duties to protect and enhance the environment.

  • The promotion of a “public benefit company” model for water companies, so that particular economic and environmental policy objectives are also considered when running the company rather than just a return for shareholders.

In 2020, water companies made £2 billion in profit - a Sewage Tax would have raised £340 million to help clean up our rivers. Water companies would be prevented from passing the cost of the Sewage Tax onto consumers by Ofwat.

The Conservatives have allowed water companies to pollute our waterways with raw sewage for far too long. It’s time to stop them.

Update 6th Apr 2022

The Rivers Trust has updates its Sewage Map to include the latest 2021 data. "Is your river fit to play in?"

Update 16th Mar 2022

"Water companies have yet to complete a single improvement under the government’s scheme for tackling the worst sewage overflows, almost four years after it was launched to clean up rivers, an analysis of official records reveals."

Update 2nd Mar 2022

Environment Agency downgrading 93% of prosecutions for serious pollution - Exclusive: leaked internal report adds to concerns cutbacks have undermined England’s regulator

Update 15th Feb

Some of the UK’s most popular wild swimming spots awash with dangerous levels of toxic bacteria - Waterways where hundreds of people swim on sunny days are often tainted with sewage, ‘citizen science’ reveals

Update 13th Feb 2022

Sending solidarity to Chichester: ‘Sewage discharges will be routine’: Chichester protests at Tory housing targets

Update 8 Feb 2022

Southern Water dumps sewage in sea at Eastbourne, Seaford and Littlehampton beaches, including more than 18 hours at Eastbourne.

Update 8 Feb 2022

Government challenges Ofwat to do more to make water companies protect environment, but does nothing to force change in investment strategy. Rivers Trust says government strategy paper "fails to specify the need for transformational change, provides no direct guidance around investment gaps in failing/ageing infrastructure and how this is to be addressed through the price review, and for the need for water companies to drive more environmental resilience.”

Update 8 Feb 2022

More detail here about how Environment Agency staff were gagged as pollution got worse.

Update 29 Jan 2022

Revealed: Three British water firms that pay NO tax - our investigation shows foreign owned Thames, Yorkshire and Southern avoid business levy

Update 20 Jan, 2022

It is not surprising that Southern Water are getting away with what they're doing. It is now revealed that England’s Environment Agency has been cut back to such an extent that it is no longer a deterrent to polluters.

Update 3 Dec, 2021

Given MacQuarie's track record, we're not sure if it will alleviate Ofwat's concerns about Southern Water, which it has just described as having “weak levels of financial resilience” as well as levels of customer service which lag behind the rest of the industry.

Update 1st Dec

It has also come to light that Southern have accepted an investment from Australian megacorp Macquarie. According to Southern Water this is good news.

Macquarie owned Thames Water between 2006 and 2016. They used their ownership to raise Thames’s debt and siphon billions out in dividends while almost entirely avoiding corporation tax. Macquarie also had a relaxed attitude to pollution, culminating in a then record £20m fine for discharging raw sewage into the Thames.

And this is what Southern Water call good news.


Update 25th Nov

Companies across England and Wales issued more than 5,500 sewage discharge alerts in the last year. And the biggest polluter of them all is...




you guessed it...


Southern Water!!!


with 1,949 notifications of sewage discharges in the year to 30th Sept 2021.

Oct 2021

The Environment Bill was debated in the House of Commons.

Maria Caulfield voted not to stop water companies pouring sewage into our rivers and sea. Her excuses were:
a) unpayable bills for customers
b) Baldrick like: we have a plan

But neither of these actually answer the problem.

The background

To get to the full answer we have to go back to the dawn of time - for privatisation of water, that means 1989. What had up to that moment been viewed as a public health provision became a market issue. Why? Because markets work best, we're told. But where is the market in water? 

With most big service provision you get at least some sort of choice. You can choose your electricity or gas supplier. But with water there is no choice. You get the supplier for your region. They are supposedly held in check by a regulator - Ofwat.

To some extent Ofwat has worked. There is a price cap - so the argument about unpayable bills for customers is non-existent. But in other respects Ofwat has been failing consistently for thirty years. It is supposed to see to it that providers deal with leaks, build new infrastructure and don't make too much profit. But it has enabled providers to ignore leak management, to avoid building new infrastructure, and to pay dividends of more than £57 billion pounds to its shareholders.

Let's just say that again. £57,000,000,000 out of the bills of hard pressed customers and into the trousers of shareholders.

Lib Dem logo bird projected on blockwork
Fifty seven billion pounds

Nothing much is going to change. The government plan is to make the providers give us more data about sewage. Apparently, that will embarrass them into behaving better. But we already have such provision. That is what enables us to say how many discharges there have been and for how long. 

It enables us to produce maps like this.

They haven't been embarrassed yet. They just keep discharging and laughing all the way to the bank. This is how it is. More than that, they're called "storm discharges" indicating that they are supposed to be exceptional events. But they have become routine. 

To quote Sarah Ludford "even moderate rain, not storms, cause discharges because of lack of investment in treatment capacity, that govt has allowed in order not to eat into dividends"

Part b is the cunning plan. It will be statutory and it will be by Sept 2022. But there is no substance, other than the sound of a can being kicked down the road the same way it has been kicked down the road for the last thirty years.

Remember - this government is led by a man terrified of responsibility.

When it emerges, we're betting, the plan will say "We plan to investigate urgently the relationship between rainwater and other aspects of the environment with a view to..." We're also betting it will contain the phrases "world beating" and "British water is happy water".

No. We need action now. Not a plan to have a plan. The water companies have been avoiding action for thirty years. Even one more year is one too many.

On BBC Politics Fay Jones asked "Who is going to pay… to dig up a Victorian sewerage network?" As one of our elected MPs, it's her job to answer that question, not to ask it. She could maybe learn from our Victorian forebears.

When it became obvious that a solution was needed, they got on with it. They used public funds and bent all their energy and ingenuity to solve the problem.

The water companies and most of Ms Jones' colleagues are spending their energy and ingenuity defending profits, while the rest of us swim in s**t.

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