Thames Water’s dismal record and their 20% water rate hike

So, apres le deluge…

Flood signTwo weeks since Croydon Council declared a Major Incident around Kenley water treatment works, and a week’s drier weather has enabled the mopping-up process to get underway following the floods in the south of the borough.

Next? The insurance claims and the recriminations.

“Wrangling over flood defence work may mean some householders forking out hundreds of pounds for flood-protection measures while their neighbours get the work done for free,” reads a report in the Advertiser.

But don’t trouble yourself with any of the latest editions. That was the intro to a piece published on October 19, 2001, after the previous major flooding incident involving the Caterham Bourne earlier that year.

And there was this, in March of the same year, from a local paper serving Surrey: “Tandridge District Council has made an official complaint to water watchdog Ofwat over Thames Water’s inadequacies in dealing with the crisis.”

The parallels between 2000-2001 and 2013-2014 are uncanny. The report recites how two months of heavy rain and a torrential downpour saw Whyteleafe engulfed shortly before Christmas, 2000. “Problems were exacerbated by Thames Water sewers flooding Godstone Road and gardens with raw sewage.

“Pumping could not begin until several days later because of fears of flooding at the Sutton and East Surrey Water Treatment Plant in Kenley…”

And there’s more: “Tandridge said it had warned Thames Water as far back as 1988 that the sewers were inadequate and submitted a report, although no action was taken.”

Have matters been in any way improved since that 1988 report, or in the 13 years since the last big floods?

  • Parts of Whyteleafe have been under water now for the best part of four weeks.
  • The A22 Godstone Road from Purley to Whyteleafe has been closed to through traffic for two weeks, and it may not even be re-opened until next week.
  • The primary school has been closed for two weeks and, although the waters of Lake Roke have receded, the council has made arrangements to bus its pupils to other sites around the borough, some as far away as Selhurst, a disruptive and unsettling process.
  • Residents have reported sanitary towels, condoms and other rubbish being washed up around their homes, indicating that the sewers have flooded.
  • For the last couple of days, Croydon Council has been asking residents not to lift manhole covers to accelerate the flow of water, and not to clear trash screens – the metal grills placed over the front of culverts to block rubbish from going into the tunnels. “This is highly dangerous and should only ever be carried out by trained professionals,” the council says.

That members of the public have felt the need to shift manhole covers or to clear the grates suggests that despite undertakings that the trash screens would be cleared hourly at the height of the flood crisis, this work has not been done with any kind of regularity in the past week.

Around 60 firefighters were on duty in Kenley for 10 days, pumping water away from the local water treatment works

Around 60 firefighters were on duty in Kenley for 10 days, pumping water away from the local water treatment works

No matter how much advance warning has been given to the various agencies – Thames Water, Croydon Council and Transport for London have various responsibilities between them across highway drainage and the local sewers – the response, while it was successful in extremis thanks to the hard work of emergency services and the Army, did not fully anticipate the flooding. Just as in 2001.

Residents downstream in Woldingham were reporting that water levels in the bourne were rising rapidly in early January, almost three weeks before action was taken at Kenley, and even before Whyteleafe experienced its flooding.

None of this will stop Thames Water or Sutton and East Surrey Water from sending out their water bills for 2014-2015. Just as the water levels have been rising in flooded areas, so have our water bills.

Here we have what was once a public utility, long-since privatised, providing an unmetered product – water – and charging what seems to be whatever it likes regardless of usage.

Water bills averaging more than £370 have been dropping on the damp door mats around Croydon in the past week or so. “When we set limits on prices, we listened to customers,” Regina Finn, the chief executive of the water regulator, Ofwat, said two years ago. Some Croydon residents might suggest that Ofwat ought to be listening a bit more carefully.

“They told us they wanted bills kept down while maintaining safe, reliable water supplies. We challenged companies hard to deliver this. Our decision meant that, before inflation, average bills would remain broadly stable between 2010-2015.”

Now, though, Thames Water wants to raise the water rates of its 14 million customers by another £70 to £80 – or more than 20 per cent.

These days, what was once an operation run in the public interest is owned by Macquarrie, the Australian investment bank, and a few other investment funds.

The politicians’ argument given for privatisation of utilities and public services – the railways, the Post Office, and the water boards – has always been that private companies will provide the investment that the public sector could never offer. Ever thought you’d been sold a pup?

Since 2000, Thames Water has handed out £3.6 billion in dividends to its shareholders – profits which, had it still been in public ownership, might otherwise have been invested in improved and better functioning public infrastructure. Or used to keep customers’ bills down. The householders driven from their homes by the floods in Kenley in the past month may have a view on this.

And because the company has some of its interests registered off-shore, in the Cayman Islands, Thames Water pays next to no Corporation Tax in this country.

We all might want to consider that as we write out our next water rates cheque for Thames Water.

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