Interview: What Surfers Against Sewage’s Hugo Tagholm thinks about pollution, the Environment Agency and ‘monolithic’ water firms

Over the past 11 years, Hugo Tagholm has transformed the charity he heads from “rickety organisation” to “one of the leading and most authentic voices of the ocean”. But his fight to stop water companies polluting the coast is far from over.

Hugo Tagholm: keeping pressure on ‘monolithic’ water firms to keep the coast clean. Photograph: Julian Dodd

The message is unequivocal. Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of the feisty Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) campaign group, is standing defiantly in front of DEFRA’s central London office dressed in full wetsuit and gas mask for our photographer. Point made. 

A surfer himself, Tagholm is furious at water companies for continuing to dump raw untreated sewage along England’s coast. In 2018 alone, they let their sewer pipes empty onto bathing beaches at least 1,700 times during the summer, according to SAS’s research. But when all recorded sewage ‘spills’ into rivers and beaches are calculated, the figure rises to a harrowing 147,000, and even that excludes dumps that went unnoticed or unreported.  

Surfers are campaigning on behalf of everyone who loves our coastline and loves our beaches and our rivers

“These monolithic water companies that are profit-making and shareholder-driven... are firmly the establishment and they are putting their profits ahead of protecting the environment and the people that use it, and that’s not good enough,” says Tagholm.

Tagholm’s campaigning journey began in 1991, the year following SAS’s conception. He bumped into some of the founding members at a surfing competition at Polzeath in Cornwall and “really liked the combination of environment and sport, being a fan of both”. 

He first got involved as an “interested partner, then an activist and campaigner” and wound up running the organisation in 2008. 

“I rebuilt what was then a pretty rickety organisation into what we are today,” he says. “Which is hopefully one of the leading and most authentic voices of the ocean in the charity sector in the UK and maybe in the world.”

Back in the 1990s, SAS was a single-issue pressure group set up to “call out the chronic water pollution that was prevalent right around the UK”, he says. “Sewage treatment then was just a long pipe put further offshore, with prevailing winds blowing it back onshore.”

Thankfully, the situation has since improved. “The water companies were privatised in 1989 and as part of that they had to clean  up their act, then massive pieces of European legislation came in in the 1990s, particularly the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and that really put the pressure on,” Tagholm says. “The water companies [had] to make investments to stop the sewage pollution and put the right treatment works in, with SAS a visible campaigning force around that, making sure that the public knew about it, that health evidence was collected and that change happened.”

But despite “massive improvements in bathing water quality over the last 30 years or so”, Tagholm says “the truth is too much sewage is still being pumped into our rivers and oceans on a pretty much daily basis”. 

The “1,700-plus sewage pollution events” at bathing water sites, highlighted by SAS’s research, “compromise water quality, but most importantly human health – people are using the beach for surfing, swimming and recreation and they can come into contact with what is a pretty harmful effluent, so we want to make sure that the pressure is put back on water companies,” he says.

Radical action

Tagholm says a “new baseline” has been drawn, one that “says the status quo is no longer good enough”.

“We need to see a decade of radical action to stop sewage pollution impacting our beautiful beaches, which are... a great equaliser in terms of class and how people live together, so we need to make sure we do more”. 

Water companies tell Tagholm they “can’t just do things for a few surfers because they need to think about their customers, but this is not just about a few surfers, we may be the canary in the coal mine as a group of people, but the truth of the matter is that surfers are campaigning on behalf of everyone who loves our coastline and loves our beaches and our rivers. 

“We’re firmly campaigners for everyone and for the environment so we would contest their feedback.” 

In particular, Tagholm has Southern Water in his sights. 

"As the water company that is responsible for the most spills and who has been [ordered to pay fines, penalties and rebates totalling] £126m for misreporting of sewage spills... I think it's time for them to look at their business model and look at their operations and make sure they do everything that they can to stop sewage pollution."

The Environment Agency (EA) monitors England’s 420 bathing waters and gives a classification, ranging from excellent to poor, as defined by the standards set by the Bathing Water Directive. In November, the agency reported that the number of bathing waters reaching the required ‘good’ standard has risen, with the majority classified as ‘excellent’. But the statistics are based on a maximum of 20 samples taken from each of England’s designated bathing sites during the summer and Tagholm is sceptical. 

“Of course, bathing water quality is doing very well based on the testing regime we have, but sewage pollution events can slip in between testing dates... it can mask some other indicators that show that sewage is still very much alive and kicking along the coastline.”

That samples are only taken during the summer is also a problem, says Tagholm. “People are using the water year-round now... for surfing, for open-water swimming, for paddle boarding... We need to make sure we’re looking to protect that coastline and rivers in the best possible way.”

Following the latest results, a number of bathing waters were declassified. For Tagholm, this is a terrible outcome. “De-designation is one of the worst scenarios because you take away any incentives for improvements. No one’s monitoring whether it’s good or bad, there’s no safeguards for people and so the water could go into real decline,” he says. 

Some blame the EA for not being tougher with water companies and for slashing its monitoring regime, but Tagholm does not agree. It would be “unfair to put anything at the agency’s door on this” because it has suffered from having its budget slashed year after year and is “doing the best it can”, he says. 

“We’re focused on water companies who have control over the releases along the coastline. They have a real responsibility... they’re big profit-making companies that need to make sure they’re reinvesting as much as possible and protecting the environment.”

Struggling rivers

But it is not just the coast that is struggling. Rivers too are in a “woeful state”, says Tagholm. “Only 14% are meeting good ecological status [as defined by the WFD] and they are not separate from our coastal system. These rivers ultimately flow into the sea, taking all of these pollutants [with them].”

Data showing the health of the UK’s rivers, lakes and groundwater, that was due to be published before Christmas, will not be made public by the government until spring 2020, ENDS revealed in November.

And there are fears that once the UK has left the EU the new government will be tempted to row back on green standards. One DEFRA document has already downgraded existing EU water quality ambitions to getting rivers, lakes and groundwater as close to their natural state as possible as soon as is practicable, without defining either criteria.  

“There’s a lot of semantics” within the “Brexit debacle”, says Tagholm. “There’s an uncertainty over what regulations we will retain, it’s massively important we don’t have any regression, all environmental charities would agree on that.

“Whatever happens over Brexit, we need to make sure we’re campaigning strongly for even more protection of the ocean – it’s not red tape, it’s sensible sustainable thinking for future generations, whether on sewage pollution, plastic pollution or climate change, it’s vital for us to have... fully enforced protected areas that allow the ocean to rebound from the state it’s in”.

This can only be done if there is a “really strong environmental regulator in the Office for Environmental Protection [proposed in the Environment Bill]”. It should have “real teeth [and] real autonomy to make sure business and government is held to account for the next decade of progress in protecting the ocean and the environment”, he says. 

At the time of writing, the general election result is not known, but Tagholm has a message for the new government, regardless of its colour: “We haven’t got time for endless consultations, we need implementation and urgent action to protect our oceans and the environment – that’s on plastic, that’s on water quality and that’s certainly on carbon emissions and its impacts on our fragile ocean ecosystem,” he says. 

“Urgency should be the top priority. Now’s the time for action.” 

The message is unequivocal. 

CV: Hugo Tagholm

1991 A chance meeting with SAS founders led Tagholm to join the group as a volunteer and activist

2002 Tagholm becomes programme director for children’s charity Theirworld

2007 He fundraises for the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition

2008 He returns to SAS, taking the helm as chief executive Tagholm becomes chair of the Museum of British Surfing


This story has been amended after publication to clarify that Southern Water agreed to pay £126m in fines, penalties and payments to customers following what regulator Ofwat called "serious failures in the operation of its sewage treatment sites and for deliberately misreporting its performance". The regulator also said it found that "Southern Water manipulated its wastewater sampling process which resulted in it misreporting information about the performance of a number of sewage treatment sites. This meant the company avoided penalties under Ofwat's incentive regime."
The story previously said the company had been "fined £126m for misreporting of sewage spills and for excessive use of combined sewer overflows". 
Southern Water's director of wastewater service Simon Parker told ENDS the company is "tackling its legacy" and that "the transformation programme begun by chief executive Ian McAulay is far from over. Misreporting is unacceptable to us as well as the regulator and our customers and the company has apologised". Parker said the "700 miles of coastline in its region had its best ever year in 2019" in terms of bathing water quality.