Ofwat’s investigation into South West Water has been welcomed by the county councillor for Otter Valley, who has long been calling for stricter scrutiny of water companies’ environmental performance.

On Tuesday (June 28) the water regulator said it was now including South West Water (SWW) in its inquiry into the potentially illegal dumping of raw sewage by privatised water companies.

South West Water said it is taking Ofwat's decision to investigate 'very seriously' and has plans in place to reduce its impact on river water quality.

Cllr Jess Bailey has been highlighting SWW’s pollution of the River Otter since she was elected to the county council in May 2021. She has found that, during 2021, sewage was allowed to flow into the river from various discharge points for 8,457 hours. But Cllr Bailey said it is very difficult for local residents to hold the company to account over sewage discharges, because of a ‘systemic lack of accountability in the regulatory process’.

In March this year Cllr Bailey, in her role as the district councillor for West Hill and Aylesbeare, secured the attendance of a SWW representative at a meeting of East Devon District Council, But she was not satisfied with his response to questions about how the company planned to reduce sewage discharges into the River Otter.

This week she told the Herald: “SWW’s five-year performance across all environmental metrics was graded last year as ‘consistently unacceptable’.

“Two particular areas of concern to me are the discharges at Honiton and Fluxton. My FOI (Freedom of Information) response showed me that sewage was discharged in Honiton for 1974 hours – continually from 16th January 2021 until 10th April 2021. What possible justification was there for a continual discharge? Water companies claim that sewage overflows are necessary when there is heavy rain, yet there clearly was not heavy rain continually during this period.

“The FOI response also told me that sewage was discharged from Fluxton for 723 hours in 2021. Fluxton is a new treatment works, only a few years old, so what has gone wrong?

“SWW have told me that the discharges at Honiton and Fluxton are ‘under investigation’. The Honiton investigation started in April 2022 – why on earth did SWW wait until April 2022? Even worse, the Fluxton investigation will not even start until April 2023! There seems to be a real lack of urgency.

“It is glaringly obvious that the current water regime is not fit for purpose. Water companies have been exploiting the lack of political leadership and the toothless regulatory framework for years, making vast profits at the expense of the environment.”

A SWW spokesperson said: “We have previously received the information requested by the councillor and as it fulfils the requirements of an Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) request, we will be responding to them directly in accordance with the EIR.

"We are taking Ofwat’s decision very seriously and we will provide any further information required as part of its review.

"It is important that Ofwat and the public can have ongoing confidence in our commitment to the environment. Earlier this year we conducted a line by line review of our plans and announced our largest environmental programme in 15 years. This will reduce our use of storm overflows, maintain our region’s excellent bathing water quality standards all year round and reduce and then remove our impact on river water quality by 2030."