Hastings Council Leader’s Observer column – 23 June 2023

Water in Crisis

When the Full Council debated the performance of Southern Water last July, there was cross party agreement that the company was letting Hastings down. A series of incidents since 2020 had tested our patience to breaking point, and left residents with little confidence in either what Southern Water does or indeed what they say.

But since then, things have got worse. The awful flooding of the Town Centre in January, more sewage leaks in West St Leonards in February, further sewage leaks in Old Roar Ghyll in May, and just last week two thousand residents left without any water for several really hot days.

Each time something major happens, I have to weigh up the best way of holding Southern Water to account. This includes meeting senior managers on site, writing to the Chief Executive, lobbying our MP and working with the local community to publicise the obvious failings and also our fears that there are worse things we are just not being told about.

Private companies though just don’t feel accountable to the people they serve. They are accountable to their shareholders. They are in theory accountable to the national regulators, including Ofwat and the Environment Agency. But not to the residents of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire it seems.

So, although they apologised recently for years of poor performance, especially their regular release of sewage into the sea, after last week’s loss of supply, the BBC headline on Monday morning was that Southern Water will increase our bills by £279 to pay for the improvements they need to make.

I will be writing an open letter to their Chief Executive setting out all the detailed concerns. But here are a few headlines:

The main sewer in Bulverhythe, that has split several times over the last three years, still hasn’t been replaced as promised. The outfall at Pelham Beach has had a temporary repair, which now seems to be their idea of a long-term solution to town centre flooding. The independent report into the flooding can’t be completed as Southern Water hasn’t provided key evidence, even though they promised me their full cooperation. The sewage at Old Roar Ghyll hasn’t all been removed, and they can’t or won’t tell the public that the nature reserve there is now safe to visit.

And the promised announcement about major upgrades in our system to separate sewage from rainwater and so stop polluting the sea hasn’t happened either.

I want to work in partnership with all of the agencies providing key services in Hastings. Other services, such as the NHS and East Sussex College, are clearly up for this. After all, no large organisation can any longer solve the complicated challenges we all face after thirteen years of austerity if we try and do this on our own. Cooperation is essential. But so is trust.

And until Southern Water regain our trust, we have no option but to keep shouting that they are not fit for purpose.

Please Southern Water, prove me wrong, and convince our residents and businesses that you won’t let them down again.