Britain’s filthiest company: ISABEL OAKESHOTT slams Southern Water after it was fined for pumping raw sewage on to beaches where children play
A team of staff ensure that the pool waters are crystal-clear and remove any dirt or insects that might endanger his health.
Sadly, the Chinese tycoon known as ‘Superman Li’ for his extraordinary business prowess does not appear to apply the same exacting standards to other people’s water.
For 9,500 miles from his home, the UK utility company Southern Water – in which he has a significant stake – has been pumping billions of litres of sewage on to our beaches.
Details of this and other appalling acts of pollution were revealed last week in a heated parliamentary debate when an attempt was made to place a legal duty on water companies not to pump waste into rivers.
The view from the window of billionaire Li Ka Shing’s Hong Kong mansion takes in the azure swimming pool in his landscaped gardens and the South China Sea beyond
For 9,500 miles from his home, the UK utility company Southern Water – in which he has a significant stake – has been pumping billions of litres of sewage on to our beaches
According to the Environment Agency, there were 403,171 sewage spills into English rivers and seas last year.
A group of 22 Tory MPs rebelled against the Government over its failure to act and Boris Johnson’s breathtaking hypocrisy, given that he is about to preach to the world at COP26 on environmental standards.
My equivalent of Superman Li’s stunning vista is the Solent and the choppy waters off the Isle of Wight.
There may be no swimming pool, but I have access to a sandy bay where the water is emerald-green on a summer’s day.
The area is a summer magnet for young families, paddleboarders, kayakers – and hardy swimmers at all times of year.
But, in truth, on many days the water is unsafe for swimming. This is because after heavy rain, nearby sewage tanks managed by Southern Water overflow.
Instead of building more sewage storage facilities, the firm simply directs effluent into the sea.
The frequency with which this happens threatens to turn this lovely spot, and numerous other stretches of water off the South Coast of England, into a swirling cesspit.
In July, Southern Water was fined £90 million for dumping into the sea billions of litres of raw sewage – enough to fill 7,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools – with a judge saying it had shown ‘a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for precious and delicate ecosystems and coastlines, for human health, and for fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters’.
According to the Environment Agency, there were 403,171 sewage spills into English rivers and seas last year
A group of 22 Tory MPs rebelled against the Government over its failure to act and Boris Johnson’s breathtaking hypocrisy, given that he is about to preach to the world at COP26 on environmental standards
He added that the firm had a history of criminal activity for its ‘previous and persistent pollution of the environment’.
As the world’s 30th richest man with an estimated fortune of £23 billion, Li Ka Shing – one of a number of foreign shareholders in Southern Water – has the power, influence and resources to sort this out.
Although he runs the world’s second-biggest private charitable foundation (after Bill and Melinda Gates), he has had nothing to say publicly about Southern Water endangering public health in England.
Evidence in the July court case included details of how Southern Water deliberately poured enormous volumes of untreated sewage into the sea for nearly six years in order to avoid financial penalties and the cost of upgrading and maintaining infrastructure.
The court was told that the firm, with operating profits of £213 million in 2019, covered up its actions with ‘very significant under-reporting’ of the number of illegal pollution spills.
Southern Water’s accounts show that by use of smart accounting, shareholders received £150 million last year while directors of the Jersey-based consortium that has owned the company since 2007 have continued to enrich themselves.
I first became aware of the Isle of Wight problem in August when an anxious neighbour asked me if I realised that my children – along with everyone else happily paddling, crabbing and messing around in rockpools in Seagrove Bay – might be exposed to highly polluted water.
She explained that the unusually wet summer had meant the local sewage system had become overwhelmed, prompting regular use of storm overflows to allow a putrid mix of rainwater and filtered sewage to flow directly into the sea.
This map from The Rivers Trust shows where sewage enters local rivers. The trust advises people to avoid entering the water immediately downstream of these discharges and avoid the overflows (brown circles), especially after it has been raining
This map from Surfers Against Sewage, part of its Safer Seas and Rivers Service, tracks real-time combined sewage overflows and pollution risk forecasts, and monitors the water quality at over 400 locations around UK rivers and coastlines
Some pipes offload their toxic content straight by the shore, while others carry it a little further out to sea, though they often leak nearer the beach.
Intended as a last resort, the storm outlet system is monitored by the Environment Agency, which quite rightly takes a dim view of anything other than very occasional use.
Such behaviour was at the core of Southern Water’s court case for repeated breaches of environmental regulations. Instead of treating sewage properly, the firm allowed storm tanks to be kept full and turn septic.
Even more damningly, Southern Water tried to cover up the scandal. It was only when high levels of faecal contamination were found in shellfish on the Kent coast that Environment Agency investigators discovered the filthy truth.
Thus publicly disgraced, did the company reform? Not a bit.
Even though they knew the authorities were investigating, Southern Water bosses deliberately misreported data about the performance of their sewage treatment works.
As a result, they were fined by water watchdog Ofwat. And last week, official data shows the company dumped combined sewage and wastewater in 57 different locations in the space of 24 hours, including several locations on the Isle of Wight.
Southern Water has variously blamed the UK’s Victorian sewage system, climate change (for an increase in rainfall) and urban development for reducing the amount of land available to allowing rainwater to soak away naturally.
It says that stormwater is not the same as raw sewage, having been through a filtering process.
Laughably, the company claims to have adopted a ‘pioneering approach’ to reducing spillages, listing various impressive-sounding steps to reduce outflows.
All this would be great – if only Southern Water could be trusted to carry out the work. Sadly, its track record of wilful negligence and deception does not inspire confidence.
Meanwhile, most disingenuously, the firm, which is majority-owned by the Australian investment bank Macquarie, seems to think the 4.7 million customers to whom it provides wastewater services should be grateful that the sewage is not flowing down the streets, saying it pumps dirty water into the sea ‘to protect people’s homes and businesses, schools and hospitals’.
Far away in Hong Kong’s Deep Water Bay, Li Ka Shing is shielded from the consequences – the personification of the folly of allowing Britain’s critical infrastructure to be controlled by foreign tycoons and overseas private equity groups.
Other countries, such as the US and France, would never make that mistake, having wisely banned overseas ownership of their public utilities.
We have a Prime Minister who says his top priorities include creating a clean environment, so Southern Water’s abject record stands out like a ugly stain.
It has had more than enough time – and warnings – to clean up its act. If it can’t or won’t, perhaps the answer is to bring it under the ownership of consumers who could share any profits rather than foreign tycoons treating it as cash cow while happily pumping sewage into our rivers and beaches.