Sea swimmers across the country are protesting against wastewater companies’ sewage discharges by boycotting their water bill payments.
Campsite owner Katy Colley, 48, of Hastings, East Sussex, owes Southern Water £1,755 – but she is withholding this amount in protest at the sewage the firm has discharged.
Water companies in England and Wales reported 228 sewage overflow incidents to Surfers Against Sewage within 24 hours on Friday, after the Met Office issued snow, ice and flood warnings.
Ms Colley told i she began her boycott after becoming infected by the potentially fatal bug E.coli from swimming in the sea.
“Anyone who’s ever had that knows it is the worst thing,” she said. “It is really debilitating and it was from swimming in the sea. I decided that when the next bill came in, I was going to do the boycott.”
Ms Colley, teaming up with boycotter Julie Wassmer, of Whitstable, Essex, launched the website boycottwaterbills.com, which she claims has united thousands of people boycotting payments from all 11 water companies in England and Wales.
“We’ve been deprived and denied the wonderful amenity of our beach and seas,” Ms Colley said. “The overall feeling is a sense of unfairness. People feel there’s something fundamentally unfair in paying for a service that they’re not properly getting.”
Energy consultant Caz Dennett, 52, of Weymouth, Dorset, has boycotted payments of the wastewater portion of her water bills since April 2023.
Ms Dennett, who owes Wessex Water £265, claims the firm is “not holding its end of the deal.”
“The Jurassic Coast is being poisoned by the wilful neglect of the water companies,” she said.
“It just seems horrifying and grossly unfair because we’re paying them for a service and they’re not delivering.
“In a modern, civilised society, it’s not too much to ask for clean water.”
Ms Dennett, along with members of the Extinction Rebellion group, organise local assemblies in Portland that enable residents to publicly discuss the issue of water pollution.
“It is hard to live with your area being treated as a dump. An assembly that allows people to share their voice gives them hope,” she said. “It brings them to the realisation that we can take action.”
Ms Dennett claimed she previously received a phone call from a man asking “probing questions” about the assemblies, only to reveal 15 minutes into the call that he was a senior member of staff at Wessex Water.
Wessex Water later issued a written apology to Ms Dennett over the incident, seen by i, in which they claimed that although they had “no mal intentions” they “have not got it right on this occasion” and “can do better”.
Yoga teacher and cold water swimmer Elizabeth Foreman, 53, of Whitstable, Kent, said she has been boycotting Southern Water bills since November 2021.
“I was paying for them to get rid of my sewage and they were basically putting it into the sea at the end of my road,” she said. “I wasn’t going to pay for that and I haven’t since.”
The Consumer Council for Water has advised boycotters “to continue paying their charges,” adding that “there is no requirement for a water company to suspend or delay debt recovery action just because a customer has raised a dispute with them.”
While water companies are allowed to discharge excess wastewater into seas and rivers during times of heavy rainfall to prevent their infrastructure from being overwhelmed, the rising number of discharges and sickness reports have raised concerns.
Nearly 400,000 untreated sewage discharges were reported in 2022, in addition to 1,924 reports of sickness received by Surfers Against Sewage.
Southern Water recorded 16,688 sewage spills in 2022, just one year after it received a record £90m fine by the Environment Agency over thousands of illegal discharges made between 2010 and 2015.
The firm reported a significant decline in customer satisfaction and a deterioration in performance against its performance commitments in 2022-3, according to the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat).
Katy Taylor, Southern Water’s chief customer officer, said the firm is “very conscious of the impact we have on our environment” and is investing £3bn over the next five years to reduce storm overflows, increase storage capacity and divert rain back to the environment naturally.
“We are trying to balance getting this done quickly with keeping customer bills as low as possible,” Ms Taylor told i.
Southern Water claimed it is working closely with local authorities and other organisations to “further understand water quality and how we can work together to improve bathing water classifications.”
Wessex Water met the majority of its performance commitments in 2022-3, despite being involved in an Ofwat investigation over sewage discharges into the environment in cases where this could have been avoided.
A spokesperson for the company, which recorded 21,878 spills in 2022, told i that “storm overflows have always been a been part of the sewerage system and discharge largely rainwater to prevent flooding of properties.
“We agree they aren’t appropriate for a 21st century system,” the spokesperson added, claiming that the firm is spending over £3m a month reduce storm overflows.