The swimmers didn’t get into the water looking for a fight. Most people who head out beyond the breaking waves, and towards the distant yellow swim buoys, are there for tranquillity. The lack of people and confrontation. Whether the sea is calm or bouncing, they’re drawn to an experience which clears the head of stress and makes them feel light and invigorated.
“It’s addictive and provides an outlet from the challenges of daily life,” says Ed Acteson, co-founder of the campaign group SOS Whitstable. He’s been swimming off the Kent coastline for most of his life. During the pandemic, he noticed the number of people getting in the water swell. “It was a lifeline at a time when people couldn’t socialise in pubs or go to the gym or do the other normal things they do. It was good for everyone, physically and mentally.”
This was the case, until swimmers started to link episodes of sickness – from ear and eye infections to diarrhoea – with the discovery that raw sewage was frequently being discharged at their beaches. Sewage dumping is an ongoing tactic used by private water companies which they say is to avoid sewage backing up into people’s homes. But many campaigners feel it is to avoid spending the money treating the sewage or improving infrastructure – especially the capacity of storm overflows – which are woefully inadequate for the increased frequency and capacity of rainfall we’re already seeing due to the climate crisis.
The problem was rendered more visible by the Safer Seas Service app, launched by long-term marine conservation advocates Surfers Against Sewage. It alerts water users to sewage dumping in real-time, and last week, three of my local swim and surf spots in Brighton and Hove were no-go areas. The same thing happened the week before, and the week before that, prompting the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas to ask an urgent question in Parliament about it. When she later shared the video of her speech, her tweet began: “People are literally swimming in shit…”
People are literally swimming in sh*t, pumped into our waterways by privatised companies who prefer to invest in dividends & grotesque salaries instead of renewing infrastructure. Time to bring water back into public hands@Feargal_Sharkey @sascampaigns
My Urgent Question 👇 pic.twitter.com/GZWSJ3mXpU
— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) September 6, 2022
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Ed. “We’re all passionate about swimming and our town and the local environment, and to have that snatched away through corporate greed and irresponsibility has really impacted people.” SOS Whitstable and Caroline Lucas are calling for the water companies to be taken back into public hands. At the time of writing, SOS Whistable’s petition has almost 200,000 signatures at the time of writing.
“Profit has increased as performance has decreased,” says Ed, noting that the amount of raw sewage dumped into UK seas and rivers has increased by over 2,500 per cent in the last five years and that in 2021 alone, over 217,000 hours of sewage was discharged. “Meanwhile, last year, the 22 bosses of the water companies paid themselves 20 per cent more in bonuses than the year before. Since privatisation in 1989, shareholders have taken £72 billion in dividends which they’re choosing to pay rather than fix the infrastructure.”
One of the biggest offenders is Southern Water, which is responsible for wastewater treatment in Kent and Sussex. They’re majority owned by an Australian asset management fund called Macquarie, who used to own Thames Water, which they ran into huge debt before selling, while still taking money out. Despite this, Macquire was allowed to buy Southern Water. “I don’t know any other industry where that would be allowed,” says Ed. “Water is such a vital resource for the country and if they are not going to run it properly, then it needs to be deregulated and start again.”
SOS Whitstable began life as a campaign group following a public meeting in August 2021, where local Labour MP Rosie Duffield had invited Southern Water to address residents’ concerns about sewage. Locals were disappointed by what they heard and the complete lack of answers as to whether it was safe to swim or would be in the future.
They formed the group shortly after to try and positively affect change. Their first protest, in October 2021, saw over a thousand people (in a town of just 33,000) march from Whitstable Harbour to the Swalecliffe Sewage Treatment Works, where they set up by the skate park with speakers including Hugo Tagholm from Surfers Against Sewage and Natalie Bennett from the Green Party.
They’ve since organised further protests, including in Worthing, which I went to, and consistently galvanised public support through the creation of a carnivalesque atmosphere and creative use of paper-mache poo emojis. They also show up regularly on BBC Breakfast and ITV news, are quoted in the local and national press, and are fond of hammering Southern Water and the Tories on social media.
Swalecliffe Brook this evening. Beautiful 🙄 pic.twitter.com/k3FEaOXmwa
— SOS Whitstable (@SOSWhitstable) September 16, 2022
“We have no money behind us. We’re not seasoned or professional activists For many of us, this is the first time we’ve fought for an issue,” says Ed. “But we do have a strong connection to the community and widespread public support in Whitstable and now beyond.”
This week, Southern Water was criticised for tweaking their alert system, Beachbuoy, which feeds into the SAS app, so it no longer automatically turns red after a sewage discharge. When I contacted Southern Water for comment, they said “the improvements” had been carried out in consultation with the Beachbuoy User Group “which includes councils, campaign groups and bathing water users”.
They also provided this statement from their press release: “Beachbuoy previously did not account for tidal conditions and duration, and cautiously took the worst-case scenario, leading to flagging bathing waters which causes unnecessary worrying for the public and the tourism industry alike.” They note that all releases will still be available on the website but this means users like me will have to regularly trawl through data to try and work out if it’s safe to swim or surf.
It’s a decision which Ed from SOS Whitstable believes is “dangerous” and purely to avoid the negative PR that comes from each release. On my app, it’s also removed the historical data so I can no longer see how many times my local beaches have received raw sewage discharges this year.
SOS Whitstable is considering what direct action to take next. They want to keep things within the law as they believe that will help keep the public on side and keep the movement inclusive. But another group in Whitstable decided to take things a stage further last autumn by boycotting their water bill payments (they are still paying for the clean water provided by South East Water, just not the wastewater charges from Southern Water).
The boycott was started by local author Julie Wassmer, who has a strong background in environmental campaigning, having successfully worked alongside Greenpeace to save an embankment of trees from felling by Network Rail in the early 2010s, and more recently, she was vice chair of East Kent Against Fracking – one of the first campaign groups to successfully prevent fracking in their region.
Having run successful direct action campaigns before, she was invited to speak at the first SOS Whitstable protest. “I wanted to empower people and give them confidence,” she tells Huck. “I’m 69 and I still remember the days when you could stop a war by coming out and consistently protesting.”
Last October, at a sewage protest in Margate – which like Whitstable, and countless other UK spots, has suffered regularly from sewage discharges – Julie and several others discussed the idea of stopping paying their bills. “The Consumer Act of 2015 protects you if you suffer poor service from a company,” says Julie. “We’re not getting the service we’re supposed to, so why should we pay?”
She went to see Hodge Jones & Allen, an ethical law firm that had given her advice in previous direct action campaigns to find out what the legal implications of not paying her water bills could be (they can’t disconnect you but can pass you onto a debt recovering agent and take you to court to recover what they owe). Satisfied she wasn’t threatened by the repercussions, Julie proceeded with the boycott (although she adds that she wouldn’t encourage vulnerable people into action). Julie has since been joined by boycotters from Whitstable, Thanet, Hastings and the Isle of Wight, and brought significant local and national attention to the sewage problem.
Elsewhere, and independent of Julie, frustrated sea swimmers around the country are planning water payment boycotts of their own. Inspired by campaigns such as Don’t Pay, which demands action against the rise in energy bills, and weeks of late summer sewage dumping, Chris Cracknell from Brighton and Hove recently decided to stop paying his bills to Southern Water.
“A friend suggested we make some protest placards with the kids and take some pictures on the beach for the local paper, but I didn’t think it would make any difference,” he says. “The only way to have a real impact is to hit them where it hurts and withhold money.”
Chris, who swims regularly as it helps with his mental health, says he doesn’t believe in the privatisation of essential services such as water. He hopes to encourage more people to pause their payments until there is a policy change. “Every time I hear rain now, I think I can’t go in the sea as they’ll use it as an excuse to release sewage and I don’t want to get sick,” he says. “When I called up Southern Water to complain, they said it’s all within the government guidelines. But that argument doesn’t stand up for me, it’s morally wrong to pump sewage onto public beaches, even if it is within the law.”
Julie thinks it’s notable that campaigning has been left to committed individuals and local groups, such as SOS Whitstable, and smaller NGOs such as Surfers Against Sewage. “The main political parties and large NGOs seem to remain strangely silent. That must change,” she says.
For their part, SOS Whitstable had intended to be apolitical, according to Ed, but the Tory party has made that impossible. “The government hasn’t just been weak, they’ve been obstructive,” he says. “When they had the chance to vote on a strong amendment, which we were pushing in the Environment Bill last year, they deployed a three-line whip to vote against it.”
Liz Truss is now the new PM and it’s emerged that during her time as Environment Secretary, she slashed the Environment Agency budget including funds that were due to tackle water pollution. “It’s extremely concerning,” says Ed, “But I would urge them to take it seriously because sewage is going to play a big part in the next election, especially in coastal communities.” And, if it does, that will be in no small part thanks to the mobilising efforts of these grassroots campaign groups and community organisers who have stood up in defence of their local swim spots.
Sam Haddad is a freelance writer who edits the newsletter Climate & Board Sports.