Sewage discharged into sea is unacceptable

It appears that yet again sewage has overflowed into the sea in West Dorset. According to Surfers Against Sewage, who monitor our beaches for these discharges, sewage appeared in the sea water at Eype, Charmouth and Seatown following the recent stormy weather. Ironically, a few days later, in their magazine that appeared through my letter box, Wessex Water’s Sewage Planning Manager claimed that they are “proud of our sustained industry-leading performance for customers, our communities and the environment”.

Now I have no problem with the service Wessex Water supply to their customers. Far from it. We recently had need to call them out for a blocked drain we share with our neighbours. The service they supplied was excellent. However, I really struggle to find the sewage discharges acceptable. Wessex Water justify these discharges as the necessary release of storm water to prevent our homes being flooded. This may well be the case, but is this the only response to large amounts of storm water? As our climate changes in response to increased amounts of carbon in the atmosphere such storms will only get more frequent and more severe. Does this mean that we will have to just accept the damage done to both sea life and human health by progressively increased numbers of discharges?

From my perspective, the main issue here is the delivery of essential public services by ‘for profit’ private companies. Starting during the Thatcher era there has been a growing economic orthodoxy that the dominant motivating factor behind all services should be the pursuit of economic growth, and that problems faced by our public services are best tackled by ‘market forces’. Under this economic model factors such as the discharge of sewage are classed as ‘externalities’, and are ignored by the company’s economic planning. Wessex Water is owned by the Malaysian YTL Corporation and turned in a profit of £552.3 million in 2020.

One solution, of course, would be to make water companies incur a cost for discharging sewage – to tax them for any pollution they cause. What I would like see, though, is a move to a completely different economic model, one that measures success by the degree to which the essential things we need in order to live (like warm, safe homes with a secure water and power supply) are delivered. Money and wealth are simply means to achieving these ends. Rather than set our economic focus on the means, as essential as they are, why not focus instead on the ends? Some people term such an economic model a ‘wellbeing economy’.

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