South East Water, which supplies water to most of Kent, has just announced plans for a new Water Treatment Plant (WTP) near Maidstone:
“Designs for a state-of-the-art £39 million brand new water treatment works on the site of the old Aylesford Newsprint, Maidstone, have been revealed.
“Plans for the new building have been submitted to Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council and local people are being invited to comment on the proposals.
“If planning permission is approved, South East Water will start construction of the new treatment facility in Dry End Road, Maidstone later this year.
“This project forms part of South East Water’s pledge to invest £433 million into its network between 2020 and 2025.
“South East Water will make use of the new and existing boreholes, pipework and storage tank originally built by the newsprint company to aid its printing processes.
“By upgrading and adding to the existing infrastructure, drinking water quality standards will be met while reducing construction costs and impact on the surrounding area.”
Steve Ntifo, Project Manager, South East Water, said:
“We’re really excited to be talking about our plans with the local community for the first time.
“We are proposing to build a state-of-the-art water treatment works to produce extra drinking water so we can keep up with the future growth of the community.”
If the plans are approved, it is anticipated building work will start later this year, with the new site fully operational and pumping water to homes by March 2025.
“Once built, the new treatment works will enable us to produce an additional 18 million litres of water per day. That’s approximately seven Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water.
“Construction will take place within the old Aylesford Newsprint site and therefore we’re not anticipating much disruption to the local community.
“We really value the community’s thoughts and feedback so I would encourage everyone to view the plans.”
Customers can view the planning application via Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council’s website. The planning application reference is 23/00139/FL.”
Sinkholes caused damage to reservoir
In September 2020, millions of litres of drinking water were lost when sinkholes opened up at the Hermitage Lane reservoir. The area around Barming is prone to sinkholes, prompting childhood memories of sinkholes suddenly appearing in orchards, a scary experience for children scrumping there in the 60s.
With new housing constantly being built around the area, South East Water have to maintain the supply of drinking water. Investment in an additional water storage and treatment plant was duly put into the business plan, “reinstate additional storage by April 2023.” SE Water actually received from insurers some £6m + for the damage caused by the sinkholes.
Most householders do not think beyond their boundary fence about the sources of the constant supply of potable water coming into their taps. Beyond the boundary fence, that is the responsibility of the water company, in this case South East Water, which maintains 14,929 km of pipe.
The present company came into being only in 2007, with its predecessor, SAUR, operating most of the pipelines from 1986. Having taken over from smaller local companies, it stated “focus was on updating the old network systems, reducing leakages, and meeting the increasing demands of a growing population.”
The old pipes were of lead or iron and have gradually been replaced, at the rate of roughly 3,600 km per two decades from 1940-80, and roughly 2,500 km per two decades since. But leaky pipes are a perennial problem in the water industry. Among the ODI (Outcome Delivery Incentives) of South East Water today is to reduce the leakage rate to only 94.4 ml per day.
Currently the company gets the bulk of its water from:
- 1 reservoir (at Arlington in Sussex)
- Pumped storage – 5 sites
- River abstraction – 6 sites
- Groundwater – 154 sites
There are plans to invest £4.3bn in new water sourcing over the next 25 years. As part of this, there are plans for a new reservoir at Arlington, and also for a totally new site at Broad Oak in Canterbury. Plans for Broad Oak were on display in Canterbury and at Tyler Hill during January, for public consultation.
Drought and Chalk Streams
Some of those groundwater sources are chalk streams. When there is a drought, like last summer, there is a risk of over-extraction from these, and they may run dry. With the increase of population in the South East, and the heedlessness of many householders with how they use water, there is a need to educate the public about how to save water.
In Faversham, they are giving out free water butts to urge residents to save and use rainwater on their gardens, rather than using potable water from their taps, that is extracted from local chalk streams.
Is water regulation working?
Some critics argue that the sell-off, under the Thatcher government, of water utilities to private companies was a mistake. The Government of the time said it was the best way to gain the huge investment needed in Britain’s aging water infrastructure at a time when EU regulations required the upgrades.
Initially, ordinary small investors bought the shares, but gradually these have been bought out as the big foreign pension funds have moved into the sector. South East Water is now owned 50% by three pension funds: Utilities Trust of Australia, 37.5% Caisse de Dépôt of Quebec, and 12% by Desjardin Employees Pension Fund (USA).
The crucial question, in my view, is not who the investors are, but whether a water company complies with the terms of its licence, and with the stringent rules of the regulators (OFWAT and the Environment Agency). There is no secrecy about the corporate governance of SE Water, with more than 90 pages of its last annual report freely available on its website. These cover everything from dividends to leakages.
Nominal dividends for the year ended March 2022 were reported to be only 1.8% which is lower than average investment return on all FTSE investments, considered to be 5%. But then the pension funds are in it for the long-haul. The auditors have investigated and signed off the company as financially resilient. The water companies must have 5-year business plans, with PR24 now being negotiated to start in 2025.
Their environment plans, overseen by the Environment Agency and DEFRA, are for 25 years in the future. Under the national WINEP scheme, SE Water had to engage with 65 improvement schemes. There was an operational target of 43 of these for 2021–2022. Because only 38 of these were achieved, the company suffered a net fine of £3.2m (which is an improvement on the previous year’s fine of £4.4m). So regulation does have teeth!
As well as over-extraction from chalk streams, another threat to our water sources is nitrates from farming. SE Water are responding to this with a new nitrate removal plant at Woodgarton. But scientists are now increasingly concerned about the presence of microplastics in our water. More research needs to be done as to the sources of these, because they are obviously caused by human industry. I suspect transport is the major source, run-off from roads into the water catchments, So that is a new battlefront for environmentalists.
Meanwhile, note that South East Water proclaims that it aims to strengthen its public service culture. The £433m they are investing up to 2025, including the new WTP at Aylesford, and new reservoir at Broad Oak Canterbury is a boon to the local economy.