‘People are incandescent…’ How sewage spills became a vote-winner for the Lib Dems

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<span>Jenny Quest is one of the citizen scientists who monitor water quality in the River Lavant.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Hasson/The Observer</span>
Jenny Quest is one of the citizen scientists who monitor water quality in the River Lavant.Photograph: Andrew Hasson/The Observer

The River Lavant, one of the world’s rare chalk streams, is a precious and much-loved habitat in the South Downs, but has been blighted by hundreds of sewage spills.

Its chalk-filtered waters rise in East Dean, West Sussex, described by locals as the “quintessential English village”, flow south to Lavant and carve a route to Chichester. It flows out to sea via Chichester harbour.

In February the village green and pond at East Dean were covered in what residents described as sewage with a film of fungus. The stench was described as “overpowering”. The picturesque green was still cordoned off on Friday with signs warning that it was “unsafe for public access”.

The disturbing plight of the Lavant and other rivers across the country – and the failure of the water companies to protect them – helped power the Liberal Democrats to win 71 seats on Thursday. The Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey hailed the party’s success the “best results in a century”.

Jenny Quest, 69, from Lavant, who regularly tests the river water with fellow citizen scientists, is among the voters who were attracted by the Liberal Democrat pledges to hold the water firms to account. She said the spills on the Lavant from a failing sewage system were “horrifying”.

“This river is a lifeblood for people who live here and we are just absolutely appalled that the government has allowed this to happen,” she said.

About four miles downstream of East Dean, an overflow at waste water treatment works at the village of East Lavant discharged sewage 286 times for 6,542 hours in 2023, one of the worst polluting storm overflows in the country.

Signs have been erected along the Lavant during discharges warning people to “keep children and pets away from the watercourse”. There are similar situations across the county, with raw sewage discharged into Chichester harbour for over 1,200 hours in just one month last year.

Jenny Goldsmith, 78, one of the volunteers who also tests the river waters in partnership with the Western Sussex Rivers Trust, said there was widespread public anger about water quality. “People are incandescent that the bonuses are being paid out by the water companies and the sewage continues to flow.”

Chris Turner, 67, another volunteer tester, said: “There are only about 300 chalk streams in the world. They are a precious resource of biodiversity and we need to protect them.”

Shortly before 4am on Friday at the Chichester count, a shell-shocked Gillian Keegan, education secretary in Sunak’s cabinet, lost her seat to Jess Brown-Fuller, the Liberal Democrat candidate who pledged to champion better water quality.

The Tories had held Chichester since 1924, but Brown-Fuller emerged the victor with 25,540 votes. Brown-Fuller said she was stunned at the size of her majority, beating Keegan by more than 12,000 votes. “I knew there was a wind of change, but it was beyond my expectation,” she said.

Brown-Fuller said the threat to rivers and the coast was a pressing concern for voters and was repeatedly raised on the doorstep. Davey visited Chichester during the campaign as one of the Lib Dems target seats, pledging that his party’s bold proposals “will end the Conservative sewage scandal”.

“We are a coastal constituency and people are incredibly passionate about water quality,” said Brown-Fuller. “We’ve got housing estates flooding on a regular basis, householders who are unable to use their toilets because the sewage systems are backing up and the levels of sewage being pumped into our rivers and harbour are increasing.”

She added: “People are working tirelessly to protect our rivers, but they feel they are fighting a losing battle. They want their voices to be heard. There has been a lack of political will to hold the water companies to account and put the necessary infrastructure in place.”

Louise Tucker, 79, who lives in East Lavant, switched her vote from Tory to the Lib Dems. Speaking in her cottage garden, a short stroll from the banks of the Lavant, she said that like many voters she had become “fed up” with the “mess” of Tory rule. “More houses have been built over the years and the sewage system can’t cope with it,” she said. “There have been a lack of care for our precious wild resources. No government has properly taken account of wildlife and nature.”

The Liberal Democrat campaign to tackle a “failing water industry”, with a proposed Clean Water Authority and the revoking of licences for poorly performing firms, appealed to voters across the country. Candidates ousted the Tories in the Oxfordshire seats of Henley and Thame, a seat previously held before its boundary change by Boris Johnson, and Witney, a seat previously held by a second former prime minister, David Cameron. The Liberal democrat candidates in both constituencies pledged to fight sewage pollution, with a New York Times piece last week on the Henley Royal Regatta describing pollution in the Thames as its “dirty secret”.

Southern Water said its overflows into the Lavant were in almost all cases “permitted storm overflow releases” to prevent homes and communities from flooding. It said the overflows operating during ­periods of flooding mostly contained groundwater which were then naturally filtered.Charles Watson, founder and chair of the charity River Action, said Tories had lost seats across the country where people were angered by water pollution, including constituencies along the course of River Wye which has been blighted by agricultural run-off.

He said Labour had pledged to tackle river pollution, but now needed to deliver.

“It’s going to be a real test.” he said. “If we don’t see a commitment to action within 12 months, this government will be in as much trouble as the last one.”

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