Down and dirty on the trail of filth on holiday

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LAST WEEK, I spent a great deal of time stomping around the house muttering about dirty water and dirty streets. This was prompted firstly by our return to filthy London from fragrant Cornwall; and secondly by the arrival of annual bills demanding vast sums of money for water (£162.51) and council tax (£924.24).

I had, in fact, already taken it into my head that the water we were drinking was foul; not simply because it tastes like recycled sewage, but also because of a notice that appeared in the local paper last summer, buried deep in the recess of classified advertising. It was entitled WATER INDUSTRY ACT 1991: S19 (1) (b), and read as follows: "Notice is hereby given that the Secretary of State for the Environment is satisfied that Three Valleys Water Plc 'the company' is contravening its duty to supply wholesome water under Section 68 (1) (a) of the Water Industry Act 1991, and the requirement of Regulation 3 (3) (c) of the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 1989 'the regulations' (as amended), that drinking water in Haringey Water Supply Zone should not contain nitrite above the concentrations prescribed in the Regulations."

It continued in this incomprehensible fashion for another three paragraphs, but the gist seemed to be that the Secretary of State had told the water company to clean up its act, and that the company had promised to do so by the end of last year. I'd kept the sinister little notice under a heap of papers, and the water rates bill reminded me of its existence. Now seemed like a good time to find out what had happened to the parlous state of our drinking water.

I started by ringing the Office of Water Services in Birmingham, who told me to ring Three Valleys Water in Hatfield. I duly rang its Customer Services department, who didn't know what on earth I was talking about, and said that I didn't get water from Three Valleys anyway: only people who lived further north in the borough had that particular privilege. But what about those poor souls? Was it not my duty as a good citizen to inquire further? So Customer Services put me through to Public Relations, who informed me that the notice referred to "a breach of a technical standard, not a health- related one." And apparently if anyone had to make any changes, it wouldn't be Three Valleys, but a different company, Thames Water, who supplied the drinking water to Three Valleys in the first place.

The Department of the Environment was no more enlightening: a press officer there told me that this was a very minor matter. "These notices go in daily papers all over the country," she said airily. "If there was an actual threat to anybody, it wouldn't be dealt with in this way. I'm sure Three Valleys are rectifying the problem."

"So isn't the Department prosecuting the water company?" I asked hopefully.

"No," she said, and that was that, which seemed an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion. Unwilling to give up my new role as angry householder, I decided that I might have more luck complaining about the dirty streets in the neigh- bourhood. After searching through the entries for Haringey Council in the telephone directory, the best bet seemed to ring its "Customer Care Team". Unfortunately, both the numbers listed for the team were wrong. Then I rang the council's switchboard, who gave me another number, which was constantly engaged (more out- raged citizens, I expect). I finally spoke to a nice woman in the information office: she turned out to live near me and agreed that the local streets were indeed disgusting. We compared notes on the number of times that our children tread in dog shit (too many to count), and the state of the local park (revolting). Then she told me that someone would ring me back to tell me about the council street- cleaning policy.

After waiting a couple of hours, I gave up and went out for a walk around the aforementioned park. This has been blighted for the last year by a large council skip in the middle of a muddy lawn, where the park-keepers put rubbish. The rubbish overflows regularly because the council doesn't collect it often enough, and then everyone else throws their litter on top, and a huge stinking mound grows overnight like some hideous toadstool. Since my last visit, the council had rearranged things: the skip has been moved sideways, and the fetid pile of rubbish shifted 10 yards away. Hurrah! Council Does Something About Park Problem!

I was so irritated that I summoned up the courage to tell an old man that his horrid little dog had pooed a few yards from where he was standing. (Note: old man; small dog. I am too much of a coward to tackle large youths with Rottweilers.) He looked a bit surprised, but agreed that yes, he should clear up the mess, but not this time, because he didn't have the right equipment with him. I felt like hissing, "Your hands would do," but didn't. (This is suburban England, after all).

Back home, no one from the council had rung me. I had clearly failed both as water monitor and litter vigilante. Perhaps direct action would be more effective: so I stood at my front gate waiting to shout at anyone who sullied the pavement. The only person who came by was Margery, who has lived on our road since the age of three (she is now 71). I moaned about the grime, and she said, "It used to be very clean round here. That park was a picture. You didn't dare walk on the grass in the garden, let alone make a mess on it - we were frightened to death of the park-keepers. And there was no rubbish anywhere. Everyone used to sweep their own bit of the pavement, and their own steps."

I'm not about to start mourning the good old days (yes, I do know there used to be TB and polio and many other miseries), though Margery is doubtless right about people being tidier then. As for the drinking water, we're probably better off now, nitrates and all. But I may be wrong: for according to the local historical society, there was once a well near here which was said to have curative powers. Who knows what has become of it, and its sweet spring: buried long ago beneath a council tip, I should imagine. !

ends...ajp

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