JUST two days to go till the Davises set off on our annual seaside jaunt to Broadstairs. A week of swimming, cycling, sailing and beach entertainment: the best kind of family holiday. But now we learn that Broadstairs beach is too polluted for bathing.
On Tuesday August 1, the Environment Agency (EA) issued a high pollution warning forbidding sea bathing at Viking Bay. Southern Water (SW) is permitted by the EA to make ‘releases from combined sewage overflows into the sea and rivers, to prevent homes and businesses from flooding’. EA says it’s a result of ‘unseasonably wet and windy conditions this month’.
Wind and rain in Broadstairs? Who’d have believed it?
Broadstairs, a flourishing resort since 1824, is famous for its beaches and is heavily dependent on tourism for its prosperity and reputation. So who’s supposed to be keeping the sea in good order? Turns out it’s a partnership, between the EA, SW and Thanet District Council (TDC), who ‘work together to better understand risks to bathing water, and put measures in place to make improvements’.
Most of England’s sewer network carries both sewage and surface water. During heavy rainfall, a storm overflow is required to prevent the system being overwhelmed, and emergency overflows have been in place since 2007. EA states that, finally, ‘sewage flows were diverted to full treatment at Weatherlees Sewage Treatment Works, before being discharged via the Margate long arm outfall, 2 km north of Botany Bay’.
Unfortunately EA’s partner SW has form in this.
Since privatisation in 1989, it has suffered from ‘pass-the-parcel’ ownership. A 1996 hostile takeover by Scottish Power saw the stripping of in-house scientific laboratory services and assets. It then passed to First Aqua Ltd, and in 2007 was bought by Greensands Investments, with the Australian financial services group Macquarie taking a major shareholding in 2021. This means a water utility has been repositioned, from the guardian of South East Kent’s water supply and public health to a global investment vehicle for buying and selling.
Macquarie have promised over £1billion to upgrade the network, fix pipes and leakages, pumping stations and sewers, all of which were underperforming and causing harm. The announcement resonates with jargon – ‘strengthening a zero tolerance mindset to environmental pollution’ while signalling all the necessary virtues eg diversity, green energy, new jobs and apprenticeships ‘as we tackle the COVID-19 pandemic’.
Prior to this, SW’s charge sheet had been growing: £50,000 fine in 2011 for unscreened discharges into Langstone Harbour; £500,000 fine in 2014 for discharging untreated sewage into Swalecliffe Brook (a Thanet Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest); a record £2million fine in 2016 for flooding Kent beaches with raw sewage (a catastrophic event costing over £400,000 to clean up); and a £37.7million fine in 2019 for pollution and misrepresentation of waste water performance.
A challenge for Macquarie, indeed. SW has just seen its financial rating downgraded by Fitch from secure class A to BBB negative (just one notch above Junk). A recent Reuters review confirmed that SW has suspended dividend payments until at least 2025, as it ‘struggles to raise fresh funds to tackle mounting debt’. Water firms in Britain are said to be struggling with finance and debt, while they have failed to invest in infrastructure to the extent that raw sewage regularly has to be released into rivers and the sea.
No wonder Thanet suffers some of the worst health in Britain. The provision of its ‘water of life’ is managed by an asset-stripped outfit, subsequently bought and sold by global financial investors. The current chairman Keith Lough trousered a cool £1.5million last year.
Maybe the third partner TDC is doing something about it, given its mission to ‘provide clear leadership to the community and continuously improve the delivery of local services’, along with the newly appointed council leader Nick Everett’s pledge to do so with ‘humility, integrity and determination’.
That’ll make a change! As recently as 2021, auditors Grant Thornton found that officers in the council were inadequate, bullying and responsible for financial uncertainty, falling below expected standards. It had spent £700,000 ‘on reviews’ to resolve its issues, but these had uncovered a council not fit for purpose: whistleblowers disciplined, a culture of intimidation and victimisation, while advice given was interpreted selectively, ignored, discredited, or restricted in circulation.
Mr Everett, who funnily enough was also council leader during this problem period, appears to have his work cut out. All that humility and determination should come in handy.
To make matters worse, this self-same council banned Professor Brent de Witts’s Punch and Judy show at Viking Beach, which has been entertaining families for over 30 years.
Thankfully, courtesy of Thornley Taverns, the show now has a new home in the Pavilion, Viking Bay.
That’s the way to do it!