Southern Water urged to fund public toilets in Brighton and Hove
Southern Water should pay towards the cost of keeping public toilets open in Brighton and Hove to compensate for sewage going into the sea, a councillor said this week.
Green councillor Zoe John made the suggestion to Southern Water’s director of environment and corporate affairs Toby Willison in an exchange at Hove Town Hall.
Councillor John urged the company to compensate the people of Brighton and Hove, saying: “A gesture towards something like funding our public toilets would go a long way to understanding the impact this is having on us as a city.
“It’s a drop in the ocean for someone like Southern Water, particularly when they’re reinvesting all their profits into the business. They could see this as a real investment.
“It is something that would create positive things for the city and create positive understanding that Southern Water is trying its best and that it’s going to move forward.
“If you want us to take you seriously, if you want us to think, ‘we are doing our best, we are trying, we are moving forward,’ then it needs a big, bold gesture.
“It needs an 80s-style megabots blaster doing love songs outside someone’s window. It needs us to hear you saying, ‘we care.’ It’s a great opportunity for you to take that forward.”
Dr Willison said: “We will look at what we might be able to do from a community point of view. I’m not promising anything but we will look at that.”
Labour councillor Bella Sankey also criticised Southern Water’s environmental performance including discharges affecting sea water locally. She said: “Your company poses a public health risk to our residents.”
Councillor Sankey mentioned a proposal to jail chef executives and board members of water companies that were responsible for the most serious pollution incidents.
And she asked why Southern Water’s chief executive Lawrence Gosden had not shown the courtesy of coming to answer the committee’s questions – a point also made by Councillor John and others.
Councillors complained about the way that the drainage system sent “storm overflows” – a mix of rain and human waste – into the sea when there was heavy rain.
Dr Willison said that the discharges were legal and that 95 per cent was rainwater. In the past, he said, much of the waste material went into the sea untreated. This was not the case today.
Councillor John said: “We don’t want poo in the sea. We know it’s not illegal. That’s not the point. The point is that it’s not right.”
Labour councillor Amanda Grimshaw suggested that Southern Water worked with mobile phone providers to send people text alerts asking them not to flush their toilets during heavy rain. This could cut how much sewage went into the sea.
Councillor Grimshaw said: “I know if I got a text that said, can you just hold off flushing your wee for the next five hours, I would respond to that.”
Dr Willison said that it was a “really good suggestion”.
Labour councillor Clare Moonan said that some electricity companies were texting people asking them to limit their electricity use.
She said: “When it’s raining, have a shower, not a bath. Don’t run the tap when brushing your teeth. Don’t put your dishwasher and washing machine on at the same time as they all use water. Those public messages could do with a bit more reinforcing.”
The meeting – of Brighton and Hove City Council’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee – also heard from Geoffrey Bowden, the chair of Healthwatch Brighton and Hove.
He said that when Southern Water last sent a representative to the committee, he asked whether the company had been fined for sewage discharges. He was told that it hadn’t been.
Mr Bowden said: “The next day, there was a banner headline across all newspapers in this part of the world saying they’d had hefty fines.”
He asked how many fines had been imposed on the company in the past six months and whether they had been absorbed or “passed on to the punters”.
Dr Willison said that the company had been fined £90 million fine in 2021 and that it had been paid by the company’s shareholders.
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From experience, trying to change people’s habits is a fruitless exercise. People do not change for anyone, only their perspectives. If there is no change in perspective, there is no change in their habits. It applies to every single aspect of life.
For example, a person doesn’t quit smoking because of a phantasmagoria of messages. They quit because their health has being affected.
As a regular sea user I’m the last person to stand up for Southern Water, but the local water pollution issue is a bit more complex than is being described here.
For most of the Brighton and Hove stretch of coastline we have the underground tunnel that collects drain water overflow, and that huge storage tunnel is supposed to catch excess water from combined sewers until it can be screened and filtered at the sewage plants which I understand are by Shoreham harbour and above Brighton Marina.
So we are unique in having that overflow facility, compared to other areas. And the local question is then: are Southern Water using this tunnel as was intended, or are there times when rain water contaminated with sewage has been discharged straight into the sea unnecessarily?
What we do know is that when a discharge has been reported – either via the Surfers Against Sewage group or by Southern Water’s own reporting system – most of the reports for our area have proved to be false alarms. However, Southern Water are also allowed to mark their own homework on this.
This is not to let Southern Water off the hook – it’s just that we need to get our facts straight.
The environment agency also tests our bathing water every two weeks or so during the summer months, and I understand that only on one occasion this year did they record unacceptable water pollution for our area. Their current testing system is not great because it only covers the summer months for an area where water users are in the sea year round.
It is true that water companies across the UK are not investing in the sewage and drainage infrastructure or carrying out repair work as they should, and that reports of excess and contaminated water being released into the sea and into our rivers are increasing year on year, and that’s according to their own figures.
Unfortunately, it’s then up to national government to legislate about what the privatised water companies can and cannot do, and our local council is powerless in this respect.
What might help is if we had a year round local water testing system, perhaps run from the seafront office. It would also help if when spillages are reported or suspected, an independent group could go and test the water as seen.
Since these pollution issues have been widely publicised it has been easy to have a drama over what has proved to be a false alarm. And, with trust at an all time low, many people no longer know when it’s safe to swim in the sea.
I think they should pay for showers too! I also agree with Billy, we should be able to test the water ourselves!
Anything Southern Water pays for – whether it be toilets or fines – just ends up being paid by the public through increased water bills.
Councillors Amanda Grimshaw and Moonan – Sorry your responses to texting made me laugh. What next!