The water company, which was given the lowest one star rating for performance by the Environment Agency, has informed boycotters that it will be using bailiffs if they continue to hold back bill payments.
One customer was told in an email this week: “For customers who are unwilling to pay, we will have no option but to pursue the debts incurred and these charges will be passed to our debt collection team. Additional fees could be applied to your account and your credit rating may be affected.
“While we strive to resolve all complaints to our customer’s satisfaction, our complaints procedure has been exhausted in relation to storm overflows and payments for services. We’ll not correspond further on this matter.”
The threat marks a hardening of attitude by the company, which earlier this year offered customers discounts for the part of their bill which covers treatment of wastewater.
The boycott is being taken in protest at what the customers say is Southern’s failure to carry out an essential part of their role, to treat sewage before releasing it.
Southern was fined £90m in 2021 for dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea around Whitstable and the Hampshire coast.
Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson, sentencing the privatised water company at Canterbury crown court, said the offences showed a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment. The water company is still under a criminal investigation over the discharges by the Environment Agency.
The threat to use debt collection agencies comes as beaches across the Southern water area were under a pollution risk warning after heavy rainfall. This summer, beaches in east Sussex were closed after sewage discharges by Southern, which the water company said were caused by a failure at a pumping station.
In its correspondence, Southern admitted its poor performance. “We’re not getting it right, and we know we still have a lot more to do.” It said customer bills were crucial for the company to be able to make the investments needed to deliver environmental benefits, better customer service and boost local economies.
The boycotter who has been most recently threatened with debt collection action told Southern they were refusing to pay the wastewater part of their bill while the company was “still pumping raw sewage into our county rivers and streams”. They said the company had erected signs asking local people to be pollution spotters; something the customer said raised concerns over Southern’s ability to monitor its own detection systems.
Southern Water said in a statement: “We are determined to deliver environmental and operational improvements for our customers and have committed to spend £2bn between 2020 and 2025 to achieve this.
“The bills customers pay us are crucial for us to be able to make the investments we need to deliver these improvements as well as boost local economies. Every penny of profit is being reinvested into the business to improve performance … For customers who are unwilling to pay, we will have no option but to pursue the debts incurred and these charges will be passed on to our debt collection team and additional fees could be applied.”