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Southern Water boss quizzed by constituents

Southern Water’s CEO was put to the test and Chief Correspondent Rob Thomas listened as he accepted criticism, offered hope, and dished out ‘PPP’ advice…

MORE than 100 people logged on to listen to and then question Ian McAulay at a ‘virtual’ meeting arranged by Gosport MP Caroline Dinenage.

Southern Water’s Chief Executive Officer put himself in the firing line after the MP had received a batch of letters from constituents complaining about local water quality, especially as the government’s Environment Bill is reaching the final stages of its passage through Parliament.

Almost half of the hour-long session was taken up with a presentation by Mr McAuley supported by other Southern Water managers.

Prior to the meeting, he had stated: “All 83 of our bathing waters meet strict European standards, a challenge which 20 years ago seemed impossible, but was delivered.”

The evidence presented to the meeting was that 58 beaches were rated ‘excellent’ in 2019, 21 were good, with four sufficient, and he added that provisional findings for 2021 give similar ratings.

Also highlighted was Beachbuoy, which gives information about stormwater or wastewater releases in the previous 72 hours at beaches in the Southern Water area, though the Chief Executive pointed out it was not the same as the Safer Seas app from  Surfers Against Sewage.

For Gosport and Fareham, Beachbuoy provides information on releases at Stokes Bay, Lee-on-the-Solent, and Hill Head.

Later, when answering questions, Mr McAulay admitted the Beachbuoy information, “needs to be improved”, and he agreed with a questioner that if that happened it would be possible to have notification points on beaches to warn swimmers of outflows – something that Ms Dinenage said she would support.

After about 20 minutes, as plans for separating surface water from sewage were being outlined, some of those logged on began to use the ‘Chat’ to express their frustration at the length of the presentation and, “being talked at”, while another wrote: “stop waffling and answer questions”.

Eventually there was an opportunity for questions – which ranged from specific issues such as the outfall pipe discharging into Stoke Lake and the Brockhurst Road houses which had been flooded with raw sewage that had not been adequately cleaned up, to why had action not been taken years ago, and how much has the company invested in preventing outflows of sewage?

Mr McAulay responded to specific complaints by saying staff would be in contact and the issues investigated.

Throughout, he was quick to apologise for sewage outflows which he described as, “not acceptable”.

As for investment, he said the company had stopped paying dividends three years ago and referred to Macquarie Asset Management’s recent £1 billion purchase of a majority stake in Southern Water which was used to pay off debt and, “convinced me they have a long-term view”.

With COP26 under way in Glasgow, climate change featured in the discussions and it was felt its consequences, like more frequent storms leading to more outflows, would make matters worse unless there was a ‘joined up’ approach – increasing wetlands, water efficient housing, etc. – and the water companies playing their part.

And there was time for Mr McAulay to include the ‘PPP’ advice – “pee, poo, paper only down the toilet” – to help prevent the build-up of  ‘fatbergs’ which can block sewers.

After the meeting, Caroline Dinenage wrote on her Facebook page: “Any questions not answered on the night will be followed up with written responses by email to attendees and I will also publish on my website for those who couldn’t make it.”