Southern Water pushes for private meeting after claims it is ‘refusing to answer questions in public'
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The joint chairmen of Adur & Worthing Councils’ Joint Overview and Scrutiny Committee (JOSC) have written to the company’s chief executive, Lawrence Gosden, to ‘express disappointment’ at Southern Water’s ‘rejection of its invitations’.
Southern Water confirmed this letter has been received and Mr Gosden has ‘repeated his earlier offer’ of a personal meeting to the chief executive and leaders of both councils to ‘explain our position’.
A spokesperson added: “No such meeting has yet taken place, but we very much hope it can be scheduled soon.”
The JOSC has a general role to perform scrutiny functions and to review cabinet member policy and decision making in Adur and Worthing.
"It can also represent the interests of local people about important issues that affect them, including scrutinising the work of those agencies responsible for delivering public services, such as Southern Water,” a council spokesperson added.
"Aware that its residents are becoming increasingly concerned and frustrated about the continued pollution of our coastal waters, the committee is keen to understand Southern Water’s strategic direction and priorities.”
An initial invitation to participate in one of the committee’s meetings was sent to Southern Water in August last year, the council said.
A follow up request by the committee was then sent for a meeting in November, which was ‘declined by the water company’. The latest invitation was sent for the committee meeting today (Tuesday, January 30), ‘which was also declined’.
The council has subsequently accused the water company of ‘refusing to answer questions in public about its failings’
A spokesperson added: “Following the latest refusal, Southern Water informed the committee that it was unwilling to attend a meeting held in public.
"Instead, the company offered a private meeting to council leaders, cabinet members and officers to discuss the issues and its forward plan.
"The offer of a private meeting has been criticised by the committee, which wants to hold the company to account publicly. Councillors are also disappointed that an offer to tour the Southern Water treatment works at East Worthing was withdrawn, at a day’s notice.”
In the letter to Mr Gosden, the committee’s joint chairmen Joss Loader and Dr Heather Mercer, questioned Southern Water’s ‘desire to engage’ and be ‘transparent with its customers’.
Councillor Loader said: “Southern Water is effectively a monopoly and it has a duty to answer questions, from residents, in a public arena. They have attended JOSC meetings previously, and their current refusal has prompted councillors and customers to ask what they are now trying to hide.
“The water company’s recent spill off Shoreham Harbour affected the district’s coastline and river for days, so now seems more appropriate than ever for their senior management team to meet us, in public, and address our legitimate concerns.”
Dr Mercer said: “It is disappointing that Southern Water is the only external body, normally scrutinised annually, who have persistently declined to attend JOSC, despite diary dates being agreed.
“It’s very important that the voices of our residents are heard by Southern Water. Our communities and coastline continue to be detrimentally affected by its services, and residents expect Southern Water to attend so they have the opportunity to understand what is being done to address the situation.”
Southern Water’s Chief Customer Officer has issued a statement, in response.
Katy Taylor said: “Councils are vital partners throughout our region, as we work towards a shared goal of protecting and enhancing our environment and providing the best possible service to customers. It is important we engage with all stakeholders in the most effective and efficient way possible, while remaining as open and transparent as possible.
“We are currently exploring the best use of resources to achieve this engagement and collaboration but remain absolutely committed to our close working relationships. We are prioritising direct engagement with our customers and communities through regular drop-in events, where customers raise a range of issues with us face-to-face, and we listen to their concerns.”
In November, the council committee hosted a public question and answer session with the Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC), Katy Bourne, and Chief Inspector Sarah Leadbeatter – the district commander for Adur, Worthing and Horsham.
A council spokesperson said: “The committee appreciated the PCC and Chief Inspector Leadbeatter’s efforts to attend the meeting to outline Sussex Police’s plans to address the crime and policing issues affecting the area.
"Separately, representatives of Adur District Council and Worthing Borough Council have been meeting their counterparts across the region to collectively demand Southern Water clean up its act.
"The Southern Water Stakeholder Group was initiated last year and includes members and officers from more than 24 local authorities, as well as representatives of Southern Water.
"The stakeholder group demands greater accountability and clearer routes from Southern Water to improve water quality and infrastructure issues affecting residents.”