020 7650 1200

Sewage Plant

Wild swimmer takes legal action against water company after her local beach in Devon was polluted by raw sewage

A wild swimmer from Devon is taking legal action against South West Water after the beach where she regularly swims was contaminated by untreated sewage.

Posted on 28 April 2024

62-year-old Jo Bateman says she was unable to swim at Exmouth Beach, a popular location for wild swimmers, for 10 days in 2023 because of raw sewage being discharged into the sea due to the allegedly negligent operations of South West Water.

Jo, a retired physiotherapist and member of local campaign group ‘Escape’ (End Sewage Convoys and Pollution Exmouth), is bringing the claim against South West Water, which is responsible for the sewage infrastructure in the area. She is alleging its actions amounted to public nuisance and operational negligence which impacted on her right to swim.

During the incident in December 2023, Jo says she was unable to swim at Exmouth Beach for 10 consecutive days after a spill linked to a burst water main led to untreated sewage discharging into the sea.

While South West Water repaired the burst main, it used tankers to transport sewage to a pumping station near the beach. From 30 December to 2 January, an estimated 240 tankers a day, containing up to 18,000 litres of sewage were transported to the pumping station, despite the fact it was already spilling untreated sewage into the sea at the time.

This was confirmed by the Environment Agency who stated that “SWW informed us on 30 December of the failure of a pumping station in Exmouth, and that for operational reasons they were having to tanker waste to another pumping station that was already overflowing”.

Jo Bateman
Jo Bateman

South West Water, which provides water and sewage services to around 3.5 million people across the South West of England, has acknowledged that its decision to send large quantities of sewage to the failing pumping station was “not perfect” but defended it as the “least worst option”. Jo alleges that South West Water transported the sewage to the failing pumping station because it was the easiest and cheapest option, despite the company having other locations where the sewage could have been transported which would not have polluted the beach.

The incident in December 2023 is just one of several that year which resulted in swimmers being unable to use Exmouth Beach due to untreated sewage contamination. However, Jo’s claim is focused on the 10 days when sewage contamination was caused by South West Water’s operational negligence, as the law as it currently stands does not allow claims to be brought against water and sewage companies where the underlying cause of problems is the need to invest in sewage infrastructure. 

South West Water have been regularly criticised for their poor performance on sewage management and are regarded as one of the worst rated for water pollution, having discharged for over a half a million hours in 2023. The company is facing 30 charges relating to illegal water discharge activities and breaches of environmental permits over a 6 year period in Cornwall and Plymouth.

Jo Bateman’s claim against South West Water is for a loss of amenity for the period in which she was unable to swim – loss of amenity is when there is a loss in the quality of a person’s life. As well as enjoying swimming, she relies on it for her mental and physical wellbeing and says that not being able to wild swim impacted her quality of life. She is represented in the claim by Oliver Holland, partner at the law firm Leigh Day and is being supported by Good Law Project.

Jo Bateman said:

"When I first started swimming in Exmouth in 2018, I was completely ignorant of the water pollution problem caused by South West Water’s sewage discharges into the Exe estuary and off the beach. As time has gone by, I've learned more and more about what's happening. It’s unacceptable. Eventually I reached a point where I'd simply had enough, and I made the decision to take South West Water to court. I'm doing this because I feel they need to be held to account and made to take full responsibility for the harm they're causing - not just to me but to all water users, to the environment, and to the tourism industry. I hope to set a legal precedent that will open the floodgates for the many people like me who have been affected by the unacceptable actions of the water companies. It would be amazing to see them rise up and take action!"

Leigh Day’s Oliver Holland said:

“Jo has done a fantastic job in raising awareness of this problem which impacts many open water swimmers across the UK, and we are happy to assist her in taking this forward. Across the country, rivers and seas continue to be polluted, in part due to the negligent operations of the water companies, and Jo’s story highlights the impact this has on people’s everyday lives. Wild swimming is hugely positive for those who take part in it, including on their mental health and well-being. South West Water and other sewage companies should not be interfering with people’s right to swim and it is time that they are held to account and made to clean-up their act. Alongside our environmental actions over the pollution of the River Wye, our competition actions against the water companies and our wider environmental work, Leigh Day are continuing to take action to save Britain’s rivers and seas from pollution. This is another important case in that fight.” 

Jo Maugham, executive director of Good Law Project said: 

“It's shocking how little water companies have to care about the destruction they wreak on our stunning natural heritage and the lives of people who wish to enjoy it. We want this case to change that - and are proud to be working with Jo Bateman and Leigh Day.”

Oliver Holland
Corporate accountability Diesel emissions claims Group claims Modern slavery

Oliver Holland

Oliver specialises in international cases involving multinational corporations where environmental harm or human rights abuses have been alleged

News Article
Sewage Into River
Competition law Water claim Consumer law

Five UK water companies appear in court for the first time in relation to allegations of underreporting pollution incidents and overcharging customers as a result

A date has been set for the Competition Appeals Tribunal (CAT) to consider claims being brought on behalf of millions of overcharged household water customers against Severn Trent Water, United Utilities Water, Yorkshire Water, Northumbrian Water and Anglian Water.

News Article
Wye Photo By Leigh Day
Environment River Wye Group claims

Multi-million-pound legal claim launched to compensate people living near River Wye for pollution allegedly caused by chicken producers

A legal claim potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds has been launched by law firm Leigh Day in a bid to compensate thousands of people living in the Wye catchment likely to have been affected by a major degradation of the River Wye and its tributaries in recent years.