Over 30 locations across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be host to protesters calling for an end to sewage pollution.

Saturday 18 May. Thousands of protesters will take to coasts and rivers across the UK today to protest against the state of the nation’s waterways. The protests have been coordinated by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), who are calling for an end to the sewage discharges plaguing the UK’s rivers and seas, as sewage overflows continue to have a devastating impact on ecological and human health.

Over 30 protests are set to take place at local beaches and rivers, spanning locations from Cornwall to Edinburgh. Flagship protests are taking place at West Pier in Brighton and at Gyllyngvase Beach in Falmouth, with Olympian and keen paddle-boarder Dame Kelly Holmes set to join protesters on the south coast.

Giles Bristow, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Once again, the public face a grim choice this summer – risk swallowing shit or forgo a dip in the water.

“This year offers an opportunity to turn our collective anger into action and end the sewage scandal, with panicked politicians in listening mode, desperate to ride the waves of popular sentiment. A general election is imminent, and the public are out on the beachfronts and riverbanks making it clear that the issue of sewage pollution is at the top of the agenda. Ahead of the election, all parties need to show people genuine and quantifiable commitments to eliminate sewage pollution, or suffer the consequences.”

This year is a huge opportunity for action on sewage pollution. Water quality is predicted to be a core issue influencing voters in the next general election, which must happen before January 2025. Meanwhile, in June, regulator Ofwat – whose role is to challenge and scrutinise water companies to ensure they deliver safe and reliable water to people and protect the environment – will deliver recommendations on water companies’ investment plans for the next five years (2025 – 2030).

Water companies have proposed plans for £11 billion in investment for reducing sewage discharges for this period, with customer bills increasing in tandem – a move that has sparked outrage among the public, particularly in the context of the profits paid out to water company bosses and shareholders year on year. According to analysis by the Financial Times, water companies in England and Wales paid out £2.5bn in dividends in the two financial years since 2021 and a total of more than £78bn in dividends in the 33 years since privatisation.

Giles Bristow added: “Thousands are protesting on the water this weekend to let politicians, regulators and water companies know that the public aren’t going to let them wriggle out of demands for clean seas and rivers. We’re calling for plans that are ambitious enough to end sewage pollution in high-priority nature sites and the waters we surf, swim and paddle in by 2030, putting people and nature before profit. We won’t tolerate this broken system any longer.”

Double Gold medal-winning Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes, who will be paddling out with protesters in Brighton, said: “I love nothing more than getting out into the open water on my paddle-board – it does wonders for my mental health, and there’s such a sense of community amongst those who use our wild waterways for sport and recreation.”

“But this incredibly special pastime has been tainted for all of us by the persistent risk of getting sick from pollution. The poor state of our rivers and seas is shocking and infuriating. Whole generations are being deprived of the right to safely enjoy the benefits that blue spaces offer. Our waterways are for us and should be here to enjoy as they are so important for our collective health and wellbeing. Events costing thousands are getting cancelled. To see our rivers and seas being treated so appallingly by those responsible for looking after them is nothing short of a national scandal.”

“I’m paddling out with Surfers Against Sewage and thousands of water-lovers across the country because I’m passionate about our waterways, I’m angry about what’s being done to them, and I want the polluters and those in power to hear our demands to end sewage pollution now.”

In 2023, there were 584,001 recorded discharges across England, Scotland and Wales – a 51% increase on the previous year – with sewage released into waterways for a total of 12,966,322 hours. Of the 11 water companies with monitoring in place, United Utilities was the worst offender, reporting 97,537 discharges in 2023. Yorkshire Water and Severn Trent Water were hot on its heels, reporting 77,761 and 60,253 discharges respectively. SAS analysis has found that Welsh Water had a total of 108,860 discharges, although this is not directly comparable to England due to differing methods of reporting.

Paddle-outs will be taking place in the majority of water company catchments this weekend – including Scottish Water, where there were 15,289 spills last year, and Northern Ireland Water, where discharge figures are unavailable due to a lack of monitoring.

The Environment Agency boasts that 100% of storm overflows in England are now fitted with monitoring devices. However, analysis of this year’s Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) data by SAS has revealed that EDM monitors at 1,930 storm overflows, 13.3% of the total monitored overflows, are operating at less than 90% capacity – which means the discharge figures for England in 2023 are an underestimate.

Sally McGee, Tynemouth protest organiser and SAS supporter, said: “Every surfer across the UK knows that they run the risk of getting sick if they surf. Many beaches on the beautiful coast around Tynemouth are subject to the discharge of raw sewage immediately after or during storms. You can smell and taste the difference in the water. It’s really upsetting and feels like we are going backwards in time.”

“As a surfer, I believe we have a beautiful relationship with the ocean – we see it in all its glory, and we see it suffer. Up here, we share the ocean with bottlenose dolphins and common seals, whilst fulmar birds fly above us. When I surf and the water is brown from pollution as untreated sewage leaves the Tyne, I can only imagine how marine life endures it. We can choose if we surf, but it’s their everyday habitat.”

“We are protesting in Tynemouth because we are outraged that water companies and our politicians have allowed this to happen. They have a vital role in society and are abusing their position. They must stop the greed, invest and do better. We demand an end to sewage discharges in our bathing waters by 2030.”

SAS is calling for an end to sewage discharges into all bathing waters and high-priority nature sites by 2030.

Key SAS paddle-out protests are taking place at the following locations and times:

Falmouth – Gyllyngvase Beach 10:00
Brighton – West Pier 11:00
Bedford – Castle Mound 14:00
Scarborough – South Bay 12:00
Marine Lake, Clevedon 10:00
Hythe – Hythe Beach 10:30
Plymouth – Plymouth Hoe East 11:00
Saltburn – Saltburn Pier 10:00
Shepperton Lake 10:00
Edinburgh – Portobello Beach 10:30
Caswell – Caswell Bay 09:00
River Severn – Frankwell Slipway 10:30
Wallasey – Wallasey Beach 18:30
Portrush – West Strand Beach 09:30