North Devon MP makes misleading claims about SAS

We have written to Selaine Saxby MP to set the record straight and clear up any confusion about our Safer Seas and River Service.

The MP for North Devon recently made misleading claims about the work of Surfers Against Sewage during a parliamentary debate. So we have written to Selaine Saxby MP to set the record straight and clear up any confusion about how our Safer Seas and River Service.

Whilst we clearly agree with the MP about the need to provide better data to protect water users and provide the vital information we need to tackle sewage pollution, we were very disappointed that Selaine chose to use very limited parliamentary time to undermine the work of our charity to keep people safe.

Read our letter below.

You can find out more detail about the Safer Seas and River Service by downloading the app.

Selaine Saxby MP

Parliamentary Office

House of Commons

Dear Selaine Saxby MP,

I am writing in regards to comments you made during your speech on 14th May 2024 proposing the Bathing Waters (Monitoring and Reporting) Bill as well as comments made during a Westminster Hall Debate on 5th March 2024.

On 14th May 2024 you brought forward a Bill which alludes to some welcome policy changes to data and monitoring that we very much agree with, in particular the extension of the bathing water testing regime year-round and a national standard for a sewage alert to keep water users safe wherever they are.

However, despite the fact we clearly agree on your ambition to keep water users safe you took the unusual step of taking aim at us at Surfers Against Sewage. There were many comments you made in your speech which we fundamentally disagree with and some we believe to be simply untrue. We therefore would urge you to set the parliamentary record straight.

Firstly, we want to make it abundantly clear that Surfers Against Sewage have no intention of scaring people away from using the beaches of North Devon or anywhere else in the UK. We are an organisation of water lovers and water users who are passionate about spending time in and around the ocean. We also recognise progress has indeed been made in North Devon and in other parts of the UK to improve the state of our beaches, and have absolutely no problem in talking about the improvements that have been made over the last 30 years, in part as a result of pressure from local communities demanding further action from their local representatives.

But progress has stalled. So rather than scaring people off, or seeking to damage reputations, our campaigning is highlighting ongoing problems so that we can take collective action to solve the issue at source.  This should then help to further build economically and socially thriving communities in which surf schools for example do not have to make decisions about whether they should run a class.

Your issue seems to be with the Surfers Against Sewage Safer Seas and Rivers Service app, a free service we provide to help water users stay safe when taking part in activities they love. You previously said we use this app to ‘misrepresent data’ and ‘scare people from entering our beautiful waters’. And in the most recent speech you alluded to us using our app to ‘abuse the data’.

This is fundamentally untrue. The Safer Seas and River Service app uses data provided by Water Companies and the Environment Agency. We then keep alerts for a discharge on our app for 48 hours following the end of a discharge event so that water users can easily see when there has been a recent discharge, and use this information to make an informed decision. We therefore urge you to use the next opportunity to correct the parliamentary record.

With regards to the use of 48-hour alerts, we are constantly reviewing best practice for how long to leave an alert in place to ensure water users are protected. However, as you alluded to, this is not a simple calculation due to tidal cycles, environmental conditions and the lack of information about the volume and concentration of pollution that is being discharged. We therefore remain in the dark about, for example, whether a sewage discharge contains 95% sewage or 5% sewage.  From our extensive research looking at the scientific literature and talking with academics, as well as reviewing Water Companies’ own practices and publicly available regulatory advice in the UK and across the world, we are not aware of any agreed standard for how long to avoid entering the sea after a sewage incident. It is important to note that the 12.5-hour timeframe used by South West Water is not the accepted industry standard, and we are unaware of the Environment Agency publicly recommending ‘waiting one full tidal rotation before going back into the water after an overflow has run’. From our research, recommendations range between 12 and 72 hours and it should be noted that the Environment Agency does not provide a recommendation. To allow people to make informed decisions we have therefore taken a precautionary approach and remain committed to our 48-hour alert system initially put forward by the World Health Organisation.

We would very much welcome the creation of a new national standard that all sectors can support to keep water users safe. In fact, on 15th May 2024, we wrote to the Minister for Water in coalition with other water user groups.  We proposed the creation of a formal definition of a sewage pollution alert which sets out when and why an alert should be triggered and how long an alert should be in place. We proposed this should be adopted nationally by Water Companies, Regulators and Stakeholders. This would eliminate confusion and enhance public trust. The definition should be informed by the most up to date scientific evidence on the risks posed by pollution to human health, independently verified and adopt the precautionary approach.

Your speech also raised concerns about SAS not providing data when there have been warnings issued by the Environment Agency. We work immensely hard to ensure we receive accurate and up to date data from Water Companies and the Environment Agency to keep water users informed. When the Environment Agency issues incidents we are informed of them and this information is provided to the public via our app. There have been instances when we haven’t received the information due to technical limitations of the system that the Environment Agency is utilising. If this data has not been provided to us in the format agreed with the Environment Agency, we are unable to include automatic alerts. We approached the Environment Agency to work with us to try and rectify these issues but due to lack of capacity they have declined. This leaves us scrambling to try and monitor the Environment Agency’s data manually or rely on the public to notify us that an incident has taken place. Where we are made aware of pollution alerts by the public or others, we investigate and talk to Water Companies and Environment Agencies to provide the correct information the public needs to stay safe.

In conclusion, we agree with your ultimate desire to provide accurate real-time information about sewage pollution and that is why we have been pressuring Government, Water Companies and Regulators to provide real-time data on sewage discharges around the UK all year round. It is therefore a welcome step forward that this is now happening and the Government have made this a legal requirement. However, we need further action. We are calling on this Government and the next to:

  • Ensure Water Companies provide clear and consistent information to the public about sewage pollution, through the creation of a national standard for the issuing of sewage pollution alerts
  • Extend the Bathing Water testing regime year-round
  • End the use of Short-Term Pollution provisions that allows the discounting of testing samples
  • Extend the parameters of testing to include emerging pollutants e.g. antimicrobial resistant bacteria, microplastics, viruses and the effects pollution is having on the environment.

As we clearly agree on the outcomes we want to achieve, we therefore suggest using limited parliamentary time to push forward action to improve the provision of data from Water Companies and Regulators to the public, rather than taking aim at charities working to protect public health.

Finally, we apologise that we had to cancel our scheduled meeting on 1st March 2024 to discuss some of the above. As you know, we held a parliamentary event on 4th March 2024 to which you were invited and we also attended a North Devon Council Special Development Committee on water quality on 29th February 2024 where we discussed some of these issues around data and the causes of pollution in your constituency.

I would very much welcome the opportunity to meet with you in your constituency alongside members of the local community to clear up any confusion you may have around how our app works. We would also like to discuss how we tackle the root causes of pollution in the UK that is stopping the further improvement of the UK’s beaches and hampering the ability of coastal communities to thrive.

Yours sincerely

Dani Jordan,

Director of Campaigns and Communities


P.S. In order to ensure the public understands the reliability and integrity of our Safer Seas and Rivers Service app, we will be publishing this letter publicly. This will hopefully clear up any concerns caused by your statements and ensure people, including your constituents, continue to feel comfortable using our free information app, which supports water users enjoying the water safely. I hope you will understand why this is important to us and we look forward to meeting you to discuss how we can work towards our common goals in the near future.