Karen Constantine (centre, in red beret) with Kent protesters against sea sewage

Sea water swimming brought Karen Constantine up close to the realities of sewage pollution, underlining why Labour must commit to renationalisation

Covid has altered our lives in many ways. For me, and hundreds of others in my division of Ramsgate, Covid was the stimulus required to get me sea swimming regularly. I’m part of a rapidly growing UK trend of people who have taken to sea, lake and river swimming year-round during Covid times. The cold water benefits us, staves off depression, reduces social isolation and has created communities of people that didn’t exist previously. As a Kent County Councillor, I’ve used my members grant to fund essential cold water swimming accessories and open water swimming lessons for 200 Ramsgate residents. 

Not only are we swimming together for our health and social connection, we’ve become tuned in to our local environment. We notice what is going on. In East Kent, that unfortunately includes getting up close to the effluent routinely discharged into our sea. When that happens, our swimming has to stop. We don’t like that. Nor are we happy about footing the bill for such a poor service, and the so far hidden environmental costs.

Thirty years ago, we were told that privatisation would improve our Victorian sewage systems. That significant investment would be forthcoming. In reality we were sold a pup. Like other Tory ‘private is better’ sell-offs, privatisation consistently fails to deliver the ‘public good’. In this case, water companies have creamed off an estimated £57bn in dividends for shareholders since 1991, whilst failing to invest in infrastructure, meaning that every day 2.4 billion litres of treated water is lost through damaged pipes. 

This ideological Thatcherite plundering of public utilities has resulted in an expensive and broken sewerage system that is not fit for purpose. Surfers Against Sewage has flown the flag against raw discharge for decades. We Own It have highlighted that water and sewage companies are run by nine regional monopolies owned by private equity, with vast profits being siphoned to Australia, Canada, Hong Kong. The GMB union has pointed out that this paucity of investment extends to the workforce. Most of us are aware of the mountains of plastic in our seas and oceans. It’s visible. Sewage outfalls are most often unseen, unless you swim. 

All around the Kent coast, and in almost every part of the UK, swimmers, environmentalists and consumers alike have been appalled to discover the true impact of this failure of investment and the impact of raw sewage discharge. At Lake Windermere, untreated sewage has left water quality so poor it is in danger of becoming ecologically dead. Here in Kent, this pollution has impacted jobs and tourism as 10,000 oysters were potentially contaminated with E-coli. In July 2021, Southern Water were fined a record £90m. But this eye-watering sum has been treated as a business cost. And factored into our bills. 

Research shows the public are in favour of renationalisation of water companies. Gill Plimmer in the Financial Times writes: “Privatised water costs consumers £2.3bn more a year. Renationalisation would save each household in England £100 a year.” 

Headline-grabbing protest events have sprung up around the country. I organised a lively summer protest of 400 Ramsgate locals and I’ve spent recent months attempting to force accountability by requesting Southern Water to address a public meeting. As they wrestle with their PR disaster, they have now agreed to host a meeting with local Conservative MP, Craig MacKinlay, a privatisation fetishist, as chair. The political alignment is clear – I expect a greenwash! 

Given the critical importance of clean water and effective treatment of sewage, the failure of the privatisation rhetoric and the public’s desire to end this expensive monopoly, it’s high time Labour made its policy clear. Renationalisation is not only possible, it’s desirable. The public are with us. Democratic ownership of the infrastructure we all rely on, including railways and water, is within our grasp. Let’s get it in the manifesto. 

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