How the Environment Agency and a water firm discussed plans to silence residents over sewage pollution

Robert Latimer’s long-running struggle began in 2000, when the retired engineer noticed that Northumbrian Water was allowing raw human sewage to regularly flow onto Whitburn Beach near his home in Sunderland. Alarmed, he contacted the Environment Agency, believing it would come to his aid and prevent the water company from polluting the beach.

Whitburn beach, Sunderland. Photograph: Paul Walkinshaw/Pixabay

Instead, Latimer found himself fighting the Environment Agency and having to embark on a 20-year legal battle that would involve the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union. Latimer was ultimately victorious, securing from the court a ruling that found the UK to be in breach of the Urban Wastewater Directive due to the “failure to ensure that appropriate collecting systems were in place”, which the court said led to “the contamination of Whitburn beach”. The court gave the UK five years to remedy the issue.

More than two decades later, despite Northumbrian Water upgrading its infrastructure 2017, the sewage discharges continue. In April, the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions secretariat said that the UK had not fulfilled the terms of the previous court order. “Given that significant spills are still occurring from the Whitburn Long Sea Outfall since the upgrade works were completed at the end of 2017, the commission is of the opinion that the judgment in [the previous case] has not yet been satisfied,” it said in a notice. But with the UK no longer a member of the bloc, it is unclear what action the commission can or might wish to take. 

None of this has made Latimer popular with the Environment Agency or Northumbrian Water. During the dispute, a decision was made to reduce the dilution of the sewage, prompting Latimer to contact the agency to ask why this was taking place. But the agency deemed Latimer’s request to be “manifestly unreasonable” and declined to answer. Latimer challenged the agency, along with the Information Commissioner’s Office, in a tribunal at Newcastle upon Tyne magistrates court and despite winning the case in March 2020, he has yet to receive the information.

Latimer is not the only one who has found himself stonewalled. He and Steve Lavelle, Latimer’s colleague on the Whitburn Neighbourhood Forum, were tasked with researching information about the sewage network to inform the area’s Neighbourhood Plan in response to a council proposal to build 397 new homes, all of which would connect to the already overburdened sewerage system. 

But when Lavelle received the Environment Agency’s figures on sewage discharges he immediately found them hard to believe. In one instance the agency said Northumbrian Water’s Hendon Treatment Works had discharged raw human waste for 15 hours and 52 minutes in 2019/20. Lavelle challenged this figure and the agency revised it by 4,000% to 646 hours. 

According to Latimer, this means that 3,200,000 million tons of untreated sewage by-passed treatment from the Hendon sewage treatment works. “The Environment Agency accepted these figures as being correct,” he said. “How many times can they get it wrong?” 

But now Lavelle too finds he is persona non grata with the agency. He requested to see the personal data on himself held by the Environment Agency and was shocked to receive heavily redacted correspondence between the agency and Northumbrian Water which appears to set out a joint strategy on managing Latimer and Lavelle. The correspondence considered whether it best to deal with Lavelle by deeming him a “known associate” of Latimer’s or whether to escalate the conversation and close him down by classing him as a “persistent complainant”. Either classification would mean the agency would no longer have to respond to his queries.

An email thread between the agency and the water firm, seen by ENDS, reads: “[REDACTED] the approach we had agreed locally is to respond to Steve Lavelle’s complaint and then escalate that, with a view to closing the conversation that way rather than via the known associate route - it would [sic] a response to complaint from me that we would expect to be challenged, a final escalated response from Cath and then we would treat any further approaches as persistent complainant.”

Lavelle said he found it disconcerting that the Environment Agency “can consider joining forces with a private company - that they are supposed to regulate - in order to frustrate my enquiries is more reasonable than responding to my enquiries and actually regulating the private company”. 

South Shields’ Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck wrote to environment minister Rebecca Pow about Latimer and Lavelle’s treatment and received a response on 13 July, saying that the agency “will not enter into conversation with Mr Latimer about historic issues at Whitburn”, but that his complaints were being reviewed. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Northumbrian Water denied that it had worked with the Environment Agency on a strategy to deal with Latimer and Lavelle, but acknowledged that it did work with the agency to ensure information is consistent and accurate. 

“We all have an interest in the environment and the impact that we have on it and, as an organisation that’s fully committed to being open and honest with our customers, we ensure that the public right of access to environmental information is established, respected, supported, and encouraged,” they said. 

“We do this through the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) process and following strict guidance and guidelines set by the ICO. We always support EIR requests and are open, honest, and ethical towards the environmental information we hold,” said the spokesperson. 

The Environment Agency said its “aim is to be a transparent organisation that works with its customers to achieve common goals.

 “We view openness and accountability as fundamental in securing a better environment for present and future generations and endeavour to make information about the environment, and how we are working to protect and improve it, as freely available as possible.”