June 12, 2024


South West Water has taken a legal stake in a customer’s home after she withheld her bill payments in a protest over sewage dumping in rivers and the sea.

Thousands of water company customers are thought to be withholding payments but this is the first known case of a company enforcing a claim against a customer’s home.

Imogen May, of Crediton, Devon, has withheld payment since 2019 and has a £2,809 debt. South West Water won a county court judgment over the debt and has claimed an interest in May’s cottage via the Land Registry. When it is sold, the company can claim what it says it is owed.

May has also withheld payment of council tax, arguing that the funds are not spent on people’s priorities, such as environmental projects and children’s mental health services. The council is now applying for a court order to force the sale of May’s cottage.

“This is about using my place of privilege as a homeowner to push the boundaries,” she said. “It’s about necessity – unless we challenge them and show them that we’re not frightened of them, they will continue to do what they’re doing.”

“They are killing our water,” May told the Guardian. “Without our water, we are dead. I care deeply about the planet and biodiversity and I just want to inspire people to stop paying these bastards to rip us off.

“The language of money is the only thing they really understand. They can have it by all means when they spend our money on what it’s designed for. But they are openly polluting our waters and I’m done with it.”

May, who works in a bakery, has frequently taken part in environmental protests. She was arrested while blocking Lambeth Bridge in London as part of an Extinction Rebellion protest in 2019 and released without charge. Charges brought over a protest against the HS2 rail development in Buckinghamshire in 2020 were later dismissed.

May’s home is already up for sale as she had decided to downsize after her two daughters left home. She is undecided about what to do once the house is sold, “but if I am set with a choice to pay these bills or go to prison then I’ll pay the bloody bills,” she said. “I’ve promised my kids that I would not end up in prison.”

The council is applying for a court order to force the sale of May’s cottage. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

A spokesperson for South West Water said it did not comment on individual customers’ cases. “We are serious about tackling storm overflows and change of this scale takes time, ambition and increased investment, and that is why we are investing £850m in our region over two years,” he said. “We will also be the first water company to meet the government target of less than 10 spills per overflow, per year, a decade ahead of target.”

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South West Water increased its annual dividend to investors to £127m in May. In the same month, 17,000 of its customers had to boil water due to contamination with the cryptosporidium parasite, which results from faecal pollution of water supplies.

Frequent overflows of sewage into rivers and the sea has become a high-profile issue in recent years. Multimillion-pound court fines have been levied against a number of English water companies over their failings, and their large debts and dividend payments to shareholders have become controversial. Thousands of customers are thought to be boycotting their payments, with bill strikes ongoing against all nine companies dealing with wastewater in England.

Julie Wassmer, of Whitstable, Kent, helped found the BoycottWaterBills.com website. She has withheld the sewerage portion of her water bill from Southern Water since 2021, totalling about £1,000.

“We know for a fact that we’ve got boycott action in all the wastewater areas,” she said. “We haven’t got a complete figure on how many people are boycotting nationally but we believe it’s thousands,” based on mailing list numbers and web activity.

Wassmer said the process for complaining to water companies was “not fit for purpose” and that the industry regulator, Ofwat, was ineffective in stemming the sewage pollution. “So there’s no chance of holding the companies to account. The whole thing is just a legalised scam and it’s only benefited the companies, the executives and their shareholders, and people are doing the only thing I think we can do, which is to withhold payment.”

She likened the widespread bills boycott to the successful anti-fracking campaigns in which she has also taken part. “There are so many different people involved and that means we’re hydra-headed and more difficult for the companies to pick us off.”

Caz Dennett, of Weymouth, started the Don’t Pay for Dirty Water campaign with Extinction Rebellion. “It seemed like an obvious action for people to take to truly demonstrate how sickening and scandalous the water company racket is,” she said. She has withheld the sewage charge part of her Wessex Water bill for 14 months and is in dispute with the company over the £940 it says she owes.

Katy Taylor, the chief customer officer at Southern Water, said: “To reduce storm overflows, we have a £1.5bn investment increasing storage capacity and finding ways to divert rain back to the environment naturally.”

A Wessex Water spokesperson said: “We agree [storm overflows] are outdated and we’re currently spending over £3m a month to progressively improve them. Subject to regulatory approval, this investment will double.”

Wassmer said: “Nationalisation appears to be the only way forward. England is the only country in the world to have a fully privatised water industry. So it’s not only a national disgrace, it’s an international disgrace.”



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