South West Water has faced questions from the authority over a failure to build a new treatment plant in East Devon – and if the current sewage system can cope with more development.
Can the sewage system cope if more houses are built in East Devon? That’s the broad sum of questions district Councillors put to South West Water (SWW) when they gave the water company a grilling last week, writes local democracy reporter Will Goddard.
Their concerns come after numerous recent sewage-related incidents in the area, including pipe bursts in Exmouth, multiple discharges at bathing beaches, a spill at Cranbrook Country Park and more.
Cllr Eleanor Rylance (Lib Dem, Broadclyst) said: “To the untrained eye at the moment it looks very much like we have reached capacity given the frequent events that we’re having.”
SWW said its system was not yet at capacity, that it was looking into ways to prevent surface water entering the sewage system to help reduce discharges, and that it has plans to double capacity at the Maer Lane treatment works in Exmouth to deal with storms.
With regard to recent sewage incidents, it added that 2023 was a particularly wet year and the pipe bursts in Exmouth were due to the bottom of the pipe being “worn-out”.
Councillors also asked why a sewage treatment works was never built at the new town of Cranbrook, saying they had been under the impression it would be.
Cllr Paul Arnott (Lib Dem, Coly Valley) said: “I suppose the Councillors who at the time voted through the Cranbrook scheme were doing so in good faith because they assumed, ‘oh well, there’s an established need for some kind of treatment plant, that’ll get built’.
“It’s absolutely crystal clear. That treatment plant in Cranbrook should have been built. End of story, that’s it.”
SWW said it chose to upgrade its Countess Wear treatment works instead of building a new facility at Cranbrook but is now considering a new plant east of Exeter to cope with future developments.
SWW director of external liaison Alan Burrows said: “We looked at what we could do at the time and a decision was made to do the upgrades at Countess Wear.
“We recognise that any future development will need to consider a treatment facility east of Exeter.”
Cllr Paula Fernley (Green, Broadclyst) asked how Councillors could be sure that the sewage system could cope whenever they grant planning permission.
She said: “We have planning applications coming in all the time.
“How are we going to get a better relationship where you’re going to tell us honestly what developments you can cope with and what developments can’t be coped with?”
SWW has offered to meet with East Devon District Council to discuss how it will manage future housing developments. The council has accepted the invitation and is waiting for a water cycle report it has commissioned to help inform the discussion.
But Cllr Todd Olive (Lib Dem, Whimple and Rockbeare) is sceptical, saying he had previously been assured similar meetings would take place.
He said: “We have heard an awful lot tonight being pushed off to the future, in particular to this mythical future meeting between South West Water and various council officers, which quite frankly we have no assurance at all will ever happen.”