South West Water

By Richard Cogar

Members who attended the AGM in February may remember my remarks about the continuing transgressions of South West Water (SWW). Last autumn, I wrote to Susan Davey, the CEO of Pennon Group, the parent company of SWW, raising a number of concerns, some of which are summarised below. 

I referred her to the Vision and Purpose of the Pennon Group: “Bringing Water to Life”, which includes:

  • enhancing the environment;
  • delivering for colleagues, customers and communities;
  • delivering safe, clean drinking water and operating a responsible and sustainable approach to business

I pointed out that, following the publication of the Vision, the Environmental Protection Agency Report for 2021 rated SWW across various metrics as “poor performing … below average” or “requiring improvement”. For sewage pollution incidents, they were rated Category Red, the worst possible. For self-reporting of all pollution incidents, SWW’s performance was worse than the sector average. I also asked about the many faulty or missing Event Duration Monitors, which record volumes of rainwater and sewage that are discharged into local rivers. Ms Davey did not personally reply to my letter, passing it instead to Luke Carpenter, her Executive Customer Liaison Manager. He replied that the majority of these monitors had been installed by last October, with the remainder to be installed by the end of 2023. He also pointed out that a dedicated engineering team was being recruited (presumably to service these monitors).

I have written to Mr Carpenter, asking how many monitors have been installed to date and whether the maintenance team was now in place. I reminded him that, even when these monitors are in place, they would only record the volumes of rainwater run-off and sewage that exceed the capacity of the drainage system; they would not prevent the continuing pollution of our rivers, which has been the subject of much media and public outrage. Furthermore, there appeared to be no means of recording pollution caused by agricultural discharges of slurry, pesticides, fertilisers; road run-off consisting of a cocktail of heavy metals, brake fluid and de-icing agent; chemical pollution from paracetamol, antihistamines and caffeine and, of course, the menace of micro plastics. At present, the monitoring of all these
pollutants seemed to be undertaken by a small number of amateur “citizen scientists”. 

Apart from this, according to “Surfers Against Sewage”, there were 21 “dry spills” – discharges of sewage – between October 2021 and September 2022, recorded at locations where there had been no rainfall for the preceding two days. What was the justification for this?

The Environment Agency had reported that only 14% of English rivers currently have “good” ecological status, with that classification dropping to only 6% by 2027 on current trends. This assessment may well be optimistic, given the way the Agency has had its resources cut by government in recent years. The situation was now so bad that two national newspapers – the Times and the i – had launched campaigns calling for Britain’s rivers to be cleaned up.

In February 2021, South West Water publicised its participation in the “Green Recovery Programme”. According to this, £1bn, later increased by £92m, would be spent by 2025 on “environmental improvement”. At that time, Ms Davey, Pennon’s CEO, confidently stated that,

“Our Green Recovery proposals are focused on opportunities to make an even bigger environmental and societal contribution to the South West for the longer term than we do already.” She continued, “We are proposing no increase to customers’ bills over that period.” 

Since then, the EPA Data Report had recorded a deterioration in South West Water’s environmental performance from two stars to one star, the worst grading possible. As for a “societal contribution”, customers had now been informed that their bills were to rise by 7.5%. I have invited Mr Carpenter to respond to all of these points. I also reminded him that, quoted in the Times on 13 February this year, Ms Davey called South West Water’s environmental performance for 2021 “deeply disappointing”. Given that her most recent published remuneration amounted to £1.6m and that bonuses reportedly formed a substantial part of this remuneration, I have also asked Mr Carpenter on what basis these bonuses were awarded, bearing in mind SWW’s environmental performance.