‘The only thing we can do is withdraw our payments’: Southern Water bill strike gains momentum

An increasing number of Southern Water customers say they are considering not paying their water bills due to the firm’s ongoing sewage pollution problems, it has emerged.

At a public meeting on the sewage problem, hosted by Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan this week, more than a third of 100 audience members indicated they would be in favour of withholding their payments, according to the Portsmouth News.

Among them was Portsmouth city councillor Judith Smyth, who said she was considering withholding payments to Southern Water.

“I am seriously considering cancelling my direct debit – they are so unaccountable at the moment. The only thing we can do is withdraw our payments.”

Southern Water was hit with a record £90m fine in July for repeatedly and deliberately dumping raw sewage into seas along the south coast in breach of its environmental permits.

In Kent, where beaches have been forced to close a number of times in recent months due to sewage spills, a senior councillor said he had refused to pay his Southern Water bills.

In a letter to Southern Water, reported on by Kent Online, the Conservative Canterbury City Council councillor Ashley Clark, wrote: "Throughout the summer Southern Water has continued to send my untreated sewerage - along with that of other local people - directly into the sea which I use on a daily basis to swim from April to October.

"I find the thought of swimming in a mixture of local sewerage and seawater totally abhorrent and not something that I should be charged for.” 

But local Labour MP Stepen Morgan said he was concerned that a bill strike could negatively impact residents.

He said: “It’s important that people share their dissatisfaction with Southern Water – and there’s lots of different ways to do that.

“Not paying bills has consequences, and I would worry about the impact on people in the city.”

Southern Water said it would spend £2bn on improvements between 2020 and 2025 and cut pollution incidents by 80% by 2025.

A spokesperson added: “The bills customers pay us are absolutely crucial for us to be able to make the investments we need to deliver environmental benefits, better customer service and boost local economies.”

Meanwhile a council leader’s suggestion that local authorities buy Southern Water to stop it dumping raw sewage into the sea, has been branded as “silly”.

During a council meeting this week, the leader of Portsmouth City Council, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, said he was willing to write to other council leaders across the region "to see if we can buy [it] out", according to the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

But Conservative councillor Scott Payter-Harris said the suggestion showed "how far away" Vernon-Jackson was from the financial realities of such a move.

"To transform the sewage system in this country is between £150bn and £650bn," he said.

Separately this week, financial regulator Ofwat ordered Southern Water to pay back £46m to its customers.

Ofwat sets service targets for water companies which aim to “encourage the companies to deliver on the objectives that matter to today’s customers, future customers and the environment”. If they fail to deliver on their targets they are ordered to pay back customers and if they exceed expectations they are able to charge customers more.

Overall, water companies were this year ordered to repay £67m to customers. Thames Water was ordered to repay the most at £53m, while Southern Water attracted the second largest penalty. The largest outperformance payment went  to Severn Trent Water, which will receive £25m.