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Meeting in Totnes gets heated as local MP and South West Water face the public

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Meeting in Totnes gets heated as local MP and South West Water face the public

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Anthony Mangnall MP and representatives from South West Water faced a packed room of local residents in Totnes on Thursday evening. 

Things occasionally got heated in the public meeting organised by Anthony Mangnall, MP for Totnes, at the Civic Hall on Thursday evening as questions were asked about sewage discharge into waterways, SWW profits and shareholder dividends, water bills and more. 

The panel consisted of Anthony Mangnall MP, Alan Burrows (SWW director of environment), Jay Harris (SWW waste water manager), Carolyn Cadman (SWW director of natural resources), and they started the meeting by taking pre-submitted questions from members of the public, before opening the debate up to the room, which was standing room only. 

You can hear the whole meeting on SoundCloud HERE

Mr Mangnall started the meeting by acknowledging that South West Water had, earlier that day, been fined £2.1million by the Environment Agency, the "largest ever fine" imposed for environmental offences in the region. However, a report by SWW's parent company Pennon Group states that a Customer Outcome Delivery Incentives (ODIs), a measure used by Ofwat to monitor performance, during 2022/23 resulted in a net reward for South West Water of £2.1 million. 

Questions ranged from specific concerns over sewage overflows and sewage spills into waterways and the safety of swimming in local waters, to the cost of households bills while millions of pounds are paid out to SWW shareholders and in bonuses. 

One question that prompted a lot of support, from pretty much everyone in the room, was the ability of South West Water to become an official consultee to South Hams District Council's planning procedure, in an attempt to prevent development in an area where the sewage system would be put under greater pressure from more housing. 

This would include the ability to force developers to invest in local water and sewage infrastructure and water catchment systems - eg less trees, more concrete exacerbating rainwater runoff into the sewer system and investment in the sewage system to cope with increased use from more housing. The SWW representatives said they were very keen. 

Carolyn Cadman said that water companies could no longer be statutory consultees when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came in in 2010 and that SWW "could only welcome becoming a statutory consultee" in planning. 

The first question concerned the current situation in Harberton, which has sewage discharges two or three times a week. Jay Harris explained that Harberton is an area that had been identified as "needing investigation", and that the investigation had commenced. He that the investigation was about 40 percent complete and once that was concluded, they can make a plan for "solutions". 

Another question asked why was SWW's target for sewage overflow spills was less than 20 a year, per overflow, was still "far too many" and that 2035 was far too late. The question asked what the date was for SWW to bring that number down to zero. 

Alan Burrows said that there had been "stakeholder engagement" to understand "the speed of which our customers would like us to solve the problems, because there will be monetary considerations to make". This prompted laughs from an audience who implied that 'as fast as possible' would be the general answer, and shouts about SWW's CEO pay and bonuses when "monetary considerations" were mentioned.

Profits, CEO pay and bonuses was a particularly touchy subject at the meeting, with many people loudly calling attention to it whenever the subject of costs or household bills came up in the debate.

According to a report from South West Water's parent company Pennon Group, South West Water had pretax profits in the year 2022-23 of £20.5m and Pennon Group as a whole had pretax profits of £79.9m. The report also states that the "in the six months to 30 September 2022 the 2021/22 interim and final dividends were paid resulting in a cash outflow of £101.5 million".

Susan Davey, CEO of South West Water has a salary of £456,000, but trebled her annual salary in 2021 with an award of more than £1m in bonus and benefits. 

Alan continued to explain that there were issues surrounding access to many of the overflows, with some being on private land, under roads or other areas that required road closures and sometimes permission from local planning authorities to access, which caused delays. He also said that the aim could never be 'zero overflows' due to there always being a bigger and unforeseen situation that could cause a spill and not every single thing could be foreseen. 

Mr Mangnall then asked about the impact of climate change on the current water system. He asked: "If you're having an added impact of rainfall that is flooding your system, and what do you do now to mitigate this, because whatever you put in now, if climate change is going to get worse, and we've all seen the evidence which suggests it is, and you're getting higher and more intense rainfalls, is SWW saying 'well we've made a small change now', are you actually going to have to do a lot more now otherwise you're just going to have another storm overflow overflowing because of higher levels of rainfall - what do you actually do now?" 

Ms Cadman responded by saying that the response had to be a "combination of measures" including "surface water saturation - stopping that excess rain getting into the system in the first place, slowing the flow of water across the landscape - planting more trees, doing more catchment management work - preventing the system from being overwhelmed".

She also mentioned the need to "increase the permeability of the landscape" in urban areas, "such as community rainwater harvesting, not paving over front gardens, all those things can help slow the speed at which surface water gets into the sewage system". 

The next question centred around two wild swimmers who had been swimming at Totnes and Dartington and had become ill after doing so - what is SWW doing to reach bathing water status in areas like Dartington? 

Ms Cadman responded, saying SWW had "put in a lot of effort into the Clean Sweep" and that DEFRA had has announced that 100% of the classified bathing waters in the South West have passed their standards in January 2022 [NB there are only 17 classified bathing waters in the South Hams, all beaches and only covering seven or eight distinct areas - find the list HERE], and that monitoring systems had been installed, with plans for that monitoring to 'look for' a wider range of substances. 

Mr Mangnall then said: "A lot has been made about monitoring systems...can you update us on the status of monitoring, where are you, what will you be by the end of this year, why does it matter, will it be all year round?"

Mr Burrows replied that SWW had "installed 100 percent of our eventuation monitors at all of our storm overflows as of 31 March, ahead of the deadline of the end of the year". He said that there will be some locations where they have "new data that we will have to analyse", and other locations where they have already analysed the data and there will be actions in place to remedy those. 

He said Government were currently consulting on what water quality monitoring would be required up and down stream of the storm overflows, so we will then find out what monitoring needs to be in place, what they're monitoring for and how often they're going to report that, and how that data can be used.

Mr Mangnall then reiterated the need for clean and safe water - can people be assured that going into that water, using your system and using your monitoring, that they're not going to get ill? 

Mr Burrows explained that "sources of bacteria don't just come from SWW assets, they come from the catchment area as well...badly maintained septic tanks, that aren't the responsibility of the company, agriculture etc". 

Mr Mangnall asked that if those other sources are still going to be monitored by SWW and will that info be fed back into the website. He asked: "When you say operator self monitoring, are you marking your own homework?"

Mr Burrows replied: "We should know how our assets are operating, so why should we have somebody else come along and do that monitoring? We know how they operate, for our own analysis, and that is a requirement set by the Environment Agency and that's what we do."

He added that general monitoring data was sent to the Environment Agency and was available from them, but that information on the WaterFitLive map was "near real time". 

There was then a question about the Drainage and Waste Water Management Plan. The SWW representatives explained that it sets out the plan for the next 50 years, but others said it doesn't inspire much confidence. You can read plan HERE

Responding to a question about reed beds and similar schemes to prevent agricultural run off into the water systems, Ms Cadman said there was a 15 year scheme called Upstream Thinking, which engaged with farmers and landowners and helped to support them to change ways that run off entered waterways, and they were looking to expand that scheme. 

The Environmental Performance Assessment Report 2021 was brought up, had SWW made improvements since then? Mr Burrows explained that the report found that in 2020, SWW had 252 category one and category three pollutions, in 2021 that was 151 and this year will be 108. He said that it was a "third year-on-year reduction" but said it was "not good enough" and needed to reduce them. 

In terms of investment, Mr Mangnall asked a submitted question: "In recent consultation, SWW have referenced the need for increasing customer bills being necessary to pay for a cleaner environment, environmental damage, caused by SWW is an externality that they have no accounted for for decades, why should we have to pay them?" One audience member shouted "because you [the Conservatives] privatised the water companies", which was met with raucous applause from those in the room. 

Ms Cadman said she had been on a course to find out how the funding for SWW was organised and said much of it was financed through debt. Mr Burrows said that massive improvements had been made since he was younger. 

Another question concerned the concern that Government contracts with water companies were almost impossible to get out of, with 25 year clauses. Mr Mangnall said that "this is something we have been passing laws on over the last three years".

He said; "We have done four things - restricted ability for water companies to be able to pay dividends, matched against performance; if CEOs and directors are unable to deliver, we have the right to send them to jail, so the Waste management Plans have teeth; Ofwat needs to be strengthened, so we've given it the power to give unlimited fines to water companies and that money goes back into the system to pay to clean up pollution under the 'polluter pays' principle."

Discussing the current hosepipe ban and 'drought', a question was asked about the fact that the South West is generally wet, how is it that we still haven't recovered from water resources. "If this was just about climate, how come it is just Devon and Cornwall and East Anglia in drought? Is it poor storage management?"

Ms Cadman explained: "We have had the driest 18 months since the 1880s, and this February had 18 percent less rain that expected". She said the two main revisions in Devon and Cornwall were still 10-15 percent less full than they would normally be. She said that SWW was focussing on finding and fixing leaks, new sources of water, the legacy of the heritage mining industry in Devon and Cornwall are the pits and quarries being looked at for new sources of water. She said they were also looking at desalination. 

She said that with climate change predictions expecting not only higher and more intensive rain in the winter but more periods of drought in the summer so the way that water is managed needs to change; including households and businesses improving their water use and reduction in wastage. 

The meeting was then opened to the floor, with many members of the public reiterating their disappointment with high salaries, bonuses and dividend payouts, calling out the lack of competition in the market where water companies have monopolies and customers cannot change their water suppliers, their support for the re-nationalisation of the water companies, and the fact that the Environment Agency has had their budget slashed by 50 per cent since the Conservative Government came to power in 2010. 

You can listen to the whole meeting HERE and the public comments start at around the 51:17 mark. 

Commenting after the meeting, Anthony Mangnall MP said: "I welcome South West Water's attendance. However, it is clear that they need to do far more to improve our local water network, reduce storm overflows and rebuild confidence in their work. Last night's meeting was about community engagement and holding SWW to account. 

"I will continue my work locally and nationally to ensure they deliver their programme of improvements." 




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