South Hams District Council leader Julian Brazil will urge residents to refuse to pay their water rates if South West Water (SWW) fails to undertake a commitment to massively upgrade the sewage pipe network, this paper can reveal.

Speaking in response to the latest sewage spills in Kingsbridge, Cllr Brazil told the local council that he was considering mass civil disobedience as a way of getting the water company to act.

He said: “It’s absolutely disgraceful. We all know what the problem is, and that is that they (SWW) have failed to invest in the infrastructure. If they had invested that money rather than in paying out dividends to shareholders and executives, we wouldn’t be in the position that we’re in.”

He said SWW should be given “a month or two” to come up with a costed plan, adding that if it failed to do so “we’re going to tell people to not pay their water rates”.

The comments come after a string of incidents involving sewage spills by the Quayside and elsewhere in the town.

For its part, SWW blamed flooding caused by heavy rainfall for the problem while advising residents against blocking sewer pipes by flushing wet wipes and sanitary items down the toilet.

Kingsbridge councillors, including mayor Philip Cole, echoed Cllr Brazil’s views on the company but agreed to wait until the next council meeting before tabling a motion of no confidence in SWW.

Last month, East Devon District Council (EDDC) passed a motion of no confidence in the water company, prompted by “major pipe failures and sewage overflows into the sea” which had caused “extensive disruption to residents”.

Local MP Anthony Mangnall said he had written to SWW’s CEO, Susan Davy, to push for more investment “to be delivered faster, to ensure that pollution is reduced and all storm overflows comply with their spill targets as soon as possible”.

Although he welcomed a £32 million investment to cut overflows by 68 per cent in the South Hams by 2030, he said the company “must go further and faster to tackle the completely unacceptable pollution in Totnes and South Devon”.

Julian Brazil made the comments at a council meeting last week
Julian Brazil made the comments at a council meeting last week (Richard Torne)

He added: “They have a responsibility to deliver for bill payers and today’s announcement is a demonstration of the lack of leadership at the helm of South West Water on this issue.”

In defence of the government’s record, he pointed at the new enforcement regime, which had resulted in 930 inspections in the past year, and an existing ban on bonuses for water company executives found to have committed serious breaches in the law.

Mayor Cole however has accused Mr Mangnall of being one of the MPs who had voted to allow sewage to be discharged into the waterways.

The law, which was approved in January 2023 with the backing of 292 Conservative MPs, six members of the Democratic Unionist Party and two independents, called for an 80 per cent reduction in rivers of phosphates, which are found in human waste, by 2038.

The legislation was widely criticised, however, because instead of banning sewage in rivers and coasts the government had opted for a targeted reduction until then.