LAST week’s news reported that South West Water had caused 1253 sewage spills into the sea in the Seaton, Looe and Polperro catchment areas in 2023, an increase from 460 in 2022. Data from Surfers Against Sewage shows this upward trend continuing into 2024, with surfers and swimmers often excluded from their pastimes or otherwise risking their health.

Sewage spills from treatment works are permitted to stop overloading of sewage works, but that should be only in exceptional circumstances, up to 20 times per year. These figures show a worrying trend that our health, and that of visitors, and our environment, is being threatened.

But how did we get here? I would argue that water privatisation under the Tories has highlighted the unacceptable face of capitalism, with under-investment by SW Water. In 1974 the Tory government amalgamated the water boards into ten Regional Water Authorities, but then Thatcher's Tories prevented the Water Authorities from borrowing money whilst demanding they improve their infrastructure, which needed up to circa £30-billion by 1980. 

In 1987 the Tories privatised the water industry, bringing the government £7.6-billion. Since then investment in infrastructure has been insufficient to guarantee an adequate supply of mains water. We had a hosepipe ban last year due to the dry summer, which was only lifted this winter. There has also been sufficient investment in wastewater treatment, resulting in increased pollution of our habitats and bathing water, due to “increasing number of storms and heavy rainfall episodes” according to SW Water. Shouldn't they take account of Climate Change in their long-range plans? 

Both Labour and the Conservatives have weakened the powers of the Environment Agency and OFWAT, by reducing funding and thus staffing levels, which means they don’t have the capacity to investigate pollution incidents. It's great that all Combined Sewage Outflows are now monitored so that people like me who swim in the sea all year round are better informed, but these events should be limited to heavy storm events, not every time it rains. 

The Liberal Democrats manifesto commits us to ending sewage discharges by transforming water companies into public benefit companies, banning bonuses for water bosses until discharges and leaks end, and replacing OFWAT with a tough new regulator with new powers to prevent sewage dumps.

The residents of Cornwall, who have some of the lowest incomes in the UK, should not be charged higher water rates to fund the investment required to provide infrastructure investment to subsidise bonuses and shareholders. We already have the extra water demand from tourists in the summer and a coastline that needs protection for all.

We need a fairer society where we don’t have to fight big business to enjoy clean water for consumption, recreation and our wildlife.