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They are the new refuseniks: individuals who have stopped paying private water companies for ‘wastewater services’ in protest at persistent sewage spills. They argue that while the water companies rely on bullying tactics to deter consumer action, non-payment is justified and could force real change…

Katy Weitz (left) and Olivia Cavanagh (right). Olivia Cavanagh is not your typical rule breaker.

As an immigration advisor she has always been a law-abiding citizen, paying all her bills and generally doing things by the book. All that changed one day in summer of 2021 when she went swimming at Rock-a-Nore in Hastings and was surrounded by a layer of brown scum.

“It was a summer of a lot of sewage being dumped in the sea,” she said. “Obviously living in Hastings, it’s right on my doorstep, I’m very aware of the pollution. I like swimming in the sea, we share a beach hut, we don’t go away on holiday as such – this is what we do.

“But there were days when it was really hot, the sea was calm but the red flags were up and we couldn’t go in the sea. That brown scum was horrible.”

Enough was enough. Olivia resolved to keep paying Southern Water for her incoming water services but refused to pay for the wastewater charges on her bill, a charge levied to dispose ‘responsibly’ of wastewater.

“Why would I pay for a service I’m not receiving? It’s unjust,” she said. “Moreover, if I do pay I would be complicit in something that’s damaging the environment.”

When debt collection agency Orbit rang to chase payment, Olivia explained her decision and the company offered £50 off the £80 bill as a ‘goodwill gesture’. Olivia agreed on the condition that untreated sewage spills wouldn’t happen again.

One of the obligations that water companies must fulfil is preventing the discharge of raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters. Any such release through storm overflows is supposed to take place only after exceptional weather, and according to conditions in the permits issued by the Environmental Agency.

However, during an eight-day period in November last year Southern Water released sewage for more than 3,700 hours at 83 bathing sites, described by environmental groups as ‘environmental vandalism’. During the whole of 2022 it dumped sewage 16,000 times.

In October Southern Water was found by regulator OFWAT to be one of the worst performing water companies in the country for sewage discharges and fined £28.3 million for this failure. The regulator said the company wasn’t just letting down customers but also the environment, and that poor performance had become ‘the norm’.

In a preliminary investigation, the Environment Agency also recorded “widespread and serious non-compliance with regulations” and launched a two-year criminal investigation. Last July the head of the agency suggested repeat offenders should face jail.

Olivia has not paid a wastewater charge on her water bill for two years, despite a number of ‘chasing’ letters and calls from debt collection agencies UK Search and Orbit.

“We’re being conned, being made to pay for a service that doesn’t exist,” she said. “I’ve had some sympathetic conversations with Southern Water. However, one woman at UK Search told me that regardless of whether the wastewater is put into the sea, I had received the service. She later apologised when I pointed out that from an environmental stance this was an unacceptable thing to say. It is not about the money, I want Southern Water to stop ruining our environment.

“How can we watch David Attenborough telling us that our planet is close to dying and accept this? I wish more people would join this protest. The more of us that do it, the more they’ll be forced to sit up and pay attention.”

It appears Bob Geldof agrees. The Live Aid founder condemned the ‘vile harm’ caused by Southern Water. He told a public meeting in Faversham, Kent, last November that fines represented “a drop in the ocean” to the company, urging customers: “Don’t pay your water bills to Southern Water. They can f*** off.”

Indeed, escalating fines appears to have had little impact and a report by Fideres, which investigates corporate wrongdoing, argued that the 11 water companies in England and Wales had exploited their dominant positions as regulated monopolies to provide “excessively low-quality service.”

In Money Down the Drain, Raw Sewage on the Beach published last November, Chris Pine wrote: “We estimate that households purchasing UK wastewater services may have incurred damages since 2016 of approximately £163 million as a result of the water companies potentially abusing their dominant position.

“We also estimate that the same companies may have charged households more than £1.1 billion for sewage removal services, when in fact they have not safely removed that sewage, instead they may have simply discharged it into the country’s rivers and onto its beaches.”

He argued that consumers had grounds for a class action complaint to the Competition Appeals Tribunal to obtain redress for this infringement of competition law.

Katy Colley, a campsite owner from Brede East Sussex, agrees that there appears to be little consequence to the companies for these damaging spills. She too is refusing to pay for wastewater services to Southern Water.

“It can be scary doing something like this, especially when people tell you it will affect your credit rating,” she said. “But I’m not convinced they have a leg to stand on. We’ve had all the nasty-looking letters and several calls but I’ve managed to tell them to back off while our complaint is ongoing.

“We contacted the Consumer Council of Water (CCW) who agreed with us that there are strong grounds for contesting the charges. At the very least Southern Water were ordered by OFWAT to compensate customers last year but we have yet to see this reflected in our bills. Why is this?

“We have been advised by the CCW to take our complaint further, which we are doing. But I am also considering the possibility of group litigation, as suggested by Fideres.

“If things were this bad for any other business, we would have the option to walk away and take our custom elsewhere. We don’t have that option with water – these companies are monopolies and I believe they are abusing that position.”

Hastings resident, artist, and communications manager Laura Coppin is also taking a firm stance on this matter. She told Southern Water she would not pay for their “ongoing mismanagement and repeated sewage spills into the ocean”.

She wrote: “You are destroying the environment and poisoning both people and nature, and the fact you’re charging us for the displeasure of it is absolutely scandalous.”

Laura is a long term environmental protester and has been involved in the environmental protests around clean seas for a couple of years, but shared that matters came to a head at the start of the year when she realized how much worse everything was getting.

Pictured: Laura Coppin. “In terms of action they’ve done so little,” she said. “Spillages keep happening, and our seas and rivers are in an incredibly poor state directly because of water companies’ negligence. Environment Agency data shows sewage entered our waterways 825 times a day in 2022. I’ve decided to withhold my wastewater charge this year because Southern Water and other water companies are not delivering on any part of what the charges are supposed to represent.

“I wanted to go swimming last year but every time I tried there was an alert. If it’s not safe enough for us to swim in, can you imagine what that means for those living in it? This destruction is affecting untold numbers of creatures, people’s health, and the environment itself. This is a shared world and I’m not paying for them to destroy it.”

For Laura, relief can only come through a return to public ownership.

“If anything is a necessity it should never be in private hands,” she said. “The moment that something that is not only a basic human right but a right of all living things is put into a for-profit system the whole thing is broken. The more of us that speak up in this way, the less they can brush us off. The more we work together, the sooner this will be dealt with and there will be less loss of life all round.”

If you are thinking about a ‘Bill Strike’ on your wastewater charges, then here are some steps which might be useful:

  • Consider paying for the incoming water services part of your bill only. Your bill should clearly state how much is being charged for incoming and how much for outgoing.

  • Make a complaint in writing to your water company – email is fine – about why you are refusing to pay. The company must respond within 10 working days.

  • If you are not satisfied with the response, tell the company you intend to take the matter further to the Consumer Council of Water (CCW). It is a simple form:

  • Advise the company they are not to chase you for payment while your complaint is outstanding.

  • Depending on the response from CCW you can also move your complaint to the Environment Agency, your local council and the Water Redress Scheme (WATRS).

  • Stay in touch with your water provider. Ask for your account to be put on hold while your complaint is outstanding.

  • Write to your MP.

Find out if there’s a local action group near you – you aren’t alone.

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