The leader of South Hams Council has been branded ‘irresponsible’ for comments he made about angry South West Water customers refusing to pay their bills in protest at sewage spills.

Cllr Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Stokenham) was reported to be considering mass civil disobedience as a way of forcing the water company to do more.

He said residents might refuse to pay their water rates if SWW did not commit to a wholesale upgrade of its sewerage network. And he said the company is more interested in paying dividends to shareholders than investing in a clean-up.

Recent figures released by the Environment Agency revealed that sewage spilled from storm overflows into South Hams waterways for 74,556 hours in 2023, more than double the 36,591 hours of 2022.

Cllr Brazil told a meeting of the South Hams executive committee that local communities felt let down by SWW, and he would be bringing forward a motion in July looking at the options open to the council to do something about it.

“Not only do we have the health and environmental implications of tipping raw sewage into our water, but it also has a massive impact on our tourism industry,” he said.

But Cllr Nicky Hopwood (Con, Woolwell) said it was ‘irresponsible’ to talk about refusing to pay bills. “It puts people into debt,” she said. “Then they get judgements against them.

“I would ask you not to say that in future. I wouldn’t like to see any resident being chased through the courts for their money.”