Water and sewage at forefront for South East voters

Water pollution protests in East Sussex
Tackling the issue of sewage will play a vital role in how many people vote [Getty Images]

For many voters in the south-east of England, tackling the issue of sewage in the sea and waterways will play a vital role in how they vote at the general election.

Emma Muddle, a sea swimmer from Hastings, said the “relentless and quite often unlawful” dumping of sewage into the sea was at the front of her mind heading into the election.

Sarah Broadbent, from the Rye & District Chamber of Commerce, said most of the businesses in the area relied on the visitor economy – made harder by ongoing sewage issues.

And while Southern Water said it was "working hard" to make improvements in the region, all the political parties have laid out their plans for East Sussex, West Sussex, Kent and Surrey.

A history of water issues

Hastings resident Deirdra Whelan
Hastings resident Deirdra Whelan said it was a "disaster" when the town had water supply issues [BBC]

From sewage to shortages, the region has been plagued by issues in recent years.

Fellow sea swimmer Deirdra Whelan was one of about 32,500 Southern Water customers in Hastings and St Leonards who had their supplies disrupted at the start of May after a pipe burst.

"We had no water for four days and the town’s been flooded twice in 10 months,” she said.

“Hotels had to cancel bookings. It was a disaster. Something has got to change."

About 9,000 properties across east Kent experienced disruption to water supplies in February due to the deterioration of water quality in underground wells after heavy rainfall, while in October last year, a burst pipe left several inches of sewage on the streets of St Leonards – the fifth time a sewage pipe had burst in the area in a two-year period.

And in Surrey, Alfold Parish Council said sewage leaks were causing a "public health menace", with six spillages on public playing fields recorded between October 2023 and January this year.

What do the public have to say?

The verdict of voters in Hastings and Rye has mirrored the mood of the country for 40 years.

John Bownas, manager of Love Hastings, says water issues are “at the forefront of people’s minds” heading into the election.

“In the last 18 months, we’ve seen two devastating floods and water completely cut off from the town for four days,” he said.

“It’s very tough times. We’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis which is causing untold problems for everybody. But that is exacerbated hugely when businesses find they’ve suddenly got a huge repair bill for floods, to replace lost stock or lost tens of thousands of pounds worth of trade over busy weekends.”

Meanwhile, Ms Muddle, founder of sea swimming group St Leonards Mermaids, said: "Because I am a swimmer and I love the sea, my main concern is the relentless dumping of raw sewage into our seas and rivers.

"Coming from a deprived town with a financial crisis, all we have is nature - that is free for us to go to. But people can’t even go to the beach because there’s sewage in the water.”

What would each political party do about sewage?

Conservative Party

The Conservative Party manifesto pledges to work with the water regulator to hold firms that pollute rivers and seas to account and re-invest fines into a new fund to improve water quality.

The party also plans to keep water companies in the private sector.

The party was approached for further comment.


Labour would give Ofwat, the water regulator, the powers to block any payment of bonuses to water bosses, while those who oversee repeated law breaking would face criminal charges.

“It is time for change. The next Labour government will put the water companies under special measures and strengthen regulation to force them to clean up their act,” a Labour spokesperson said.

“We will give the regulator tough new powers to make law-breaking water bosses face criminal charges and ban the payment of their multi-million pound bonuses until they clean up their toxic filth.”

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats say they will “stop the sewage scandal” by banning bonuses for water bosses and replace Ofwat with a new regulator.

"Hastings' beautiful beaches, rivers and streams have been infested with filthy sewage after years of Conservative government neglect,” a spokesman said.

"We will not turn a blind eye as the Conservative Party has, and actually hold water companies to account instead of letting them line the pockets of their shareholders.”

Green Party

The Green Party said the “appalling state” of the water courses and coastline was a sign that the “experiment of water privatisation has been an unmitigated disaster”.

“While profits leak out to the shareholders of private water companies, the rest of us are left battling against a tide of filth,” a spokesperson said.

“Water is a public good which Greens would choose to return to public ownership, a move that would also enable the restoration of habitats and biodiversity."

Reform UK

The party was approached for comment. Its 'contract' does not mention sewage or water issues.

What do campaigners want?

Sewage protests on a beach in East Sussex
Campaigner Katy Colley said the privatisation of the water industry had failed [Getty Images]

Campaigner Katy Colley, from Hastings Boycotts Southern Water, said the privatisation of the water industry had failed.

“While the company has failed to invest properly in our infrastructure over the last 30 years, it has paid out £2.3bn in shareholder dividends. We cannot afford another 30 years of this,” she said.

“We have had enough of the regular floods in our town centre, we have had enough of the burst pipes and water outages, not to mention the toxic soup in our sea caused by regular sewage dumping. We want our water back.

“We want the next government to renationalise the water industry as soon as possible.”

Dr Lucila Newell, a lecturer in human geography at the University of Sussex, said whoever wins the election would inherit a “crisis in our water system”.

“To fix it requires tougher targets and regulation of pollution, including closing loopholes around the release of sewage, and more water-conscious planning of infrastructures to reduce demand. But it also requires enforcement, accountability and consequences,” she said.

What does Southern Water have to say?

Water pipes
Southern Water said it was "working hard" to make improvements in the region [Getty Images]

A Southern Water spokesperson said it was working collaboratively with the local council and citizen science groups.

“We've provided them water quality testing equipment and training as part of this," they said.

“The picture in Hastings is actually one of real improvement as the Pelham Beach rating has gone from sufficient in 2019 to being good consistently over the last three years.

“Our goal is for our collaborative approach to enhance this further.”

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