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CPRE Sussex Director’s column written for West Sussex Gazette, Sept 2023

2nd October 2023

Water companies once again hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this month. A BBC investigation suggested companies including Southern Water had discharged sewage on days when it was not raining.

This so-called dry spilling is illegal because it can lead to higher concentrations of sewage in waterways. Yet analysis suggested Thames, Wessex and Southern Water collectively released sewage in dry spills for 3,500 hours in 2022.

The news was deeply disturbing but dry spills are only part of the problem. In December 2022 Southern Water was named one of the worst performing water companies by Ofwat.

According to Southern Water’s own data, storm overflows in its Arun and Western Streams River Basin Catchment currently spill around 2,600 times a year. The same figure is given for the Adur and Ouse catchment.

These are called ‘storm overflows’ but we do not experience storms on a weekly basis. The reality is sewage infrastructure fails when there is even moderate rain. Some customers have become so disillusioned with an apparent lack of action on regular sewage pollution that they have refused to pay their water bills.

It is clear the Government needs to get tougher on the causes of water pollution, whether it’s water companies, farming run-off, or unsustainable development by housebuilders. Sussex’s rivers should be sparkling clean, not open sewers.

Yet far too often, the environment, precious ecosystems, and ultimately our health and wellbeing, are given little weight when it comes to policy decisions. This was once again illustrated by an amendment to the Government’s Levelling Up Bill tabled at the start of September.

It ordered local authorities to assume nutrients in wastewater from proposed developments would not adversely affect the environment. In effect, this overruled current nutrient neutrality rules and would have allowed developments to go ahead in areas where they are currently blocked.

The move was condemned by environmental experts and charities. Thankfully the amendment was defeated in the House of Lords; we hope that the Government does not try and reintroduce it in another bill.

The Government appears to presume that no matter how large the housing target or development, safe drinking water will always be provided and sewage treated. Yet, it is already clear this is not the case.

This reckless and irresponsible approach to planning infrastructure needs to stop. CPRE Sussex has long called for action on sewage and water issues. We want to see an end to the discharge of raw and partially treated sewage into our waterways and protection from nutrient pollution. We support sustainable development, which meets a genuine local need without compromising the surrounding environment.

Our Sussex waterways are precious. They provide vital habitats, attract visitors to the area, offer leisure opportunities and help safeguard our future health and wellbeing.

If you would like to find out more about how you could help us fight to protect clean water, visit