Southern Water is refusing demands by the information watchdog to publish internal communications between board members relating to discussions about raw sewage discharges.
The company, which was fined £90m in 2021 for discharging billions of litres of raw sewage into protected coastal waters, was ordered to publish 53 documents by the information commissioner at the end of last year because of the “substantial and weighty public interest”.
But the company said they contained “sensitive” internal decision-making processes on a live issue relating to sewage discharges, and has refused to release them. Seven months on from the information commissioner’s order to publish, Southern is taking the case to the first-tier tribunal to appeal against the ruling and to keep the documents secret.
First reported in Private Eye, the 53 documents relate to discussion at board level in 2020 and 2021, including agendas and minutes of meetings of the board discussing sewage spills or storm overflows.
Ofwat, the industry’s regulator, has promised to apply new scrutiny to the boardrooms of water companies.
Southern has tried to cite exceptions under the environmental information request (EIR) rules to defend its decision not to release the documents. But the information commissioner has said the exceptions largely do not apply and there is a public interest in releasing the documents.
The company argued that the documents should remain secret because of “the need to protect Southern Water’s internal processes of deliberation and decision-making and with regard to the sensitivity of the information and the circumstances surrounding the request”. The company said the request for the documents on sewage spills or overflows in 2020-2021 related to live issues and should not be published.
But the commissioner said the public interest favoured disclosing the information, and said there was even greater public interest because the company had pleaded guilty in July 2021 to 51 individual offences of discharging sewage illegally. Evidence presented showed the company had presented a picture of compliance to regulators that was deliberately misleading.
“Set against this backdrop, the commissioner considers that there is a substantial and weighty public interest in understanding what measures the public authority was taking, during the period covered by the request, to improve its performance and put measures in place to prevent a recurrence of the offences,” the information commissioner has said.
Ed Acteson, of the campaign group SOS Whitstable, said: “Southern is repeatedly saying it is going to be more transparent but we are just not sure that is the case.”
He said data on the company’s Beachbuoy app had recently been changed to make it more difficult for the public to see where raw sewage discharges were taking place or their impact.
Last year Southern was accused of “environmental vandalism” after discharging raw sewage for more than 3,700 hours at 83 bathing water beaches during the first eight days of November alone.
The information commissioner said the company operated a monopoly and if customers were dissatisfied with the way wastewater was being handled, they did not have the right to ask another company to handle it instead.
“One of the few powers consumers do have, is to make use of the EIR to seek environmental information such as this and use that information to hold the public authority to account, the information commissioner said.
Southern Water said as there was a court process under way it could not comment.