Rhodendrons are dying, patience is dead. Jonathan Foster reports on the storm of public outrage facing Yorkshire Water
The death toll is rising in the Yorkshire drought, with casualties particularly heavy in the Bradford area. Most homes have lost at least a bedding plant, at worst a rhododendron, and the full extent of the losses will not be known until spring. By then, Yorkshire Water's newly appointed pounds 80,000-a-year public relations director may be desperate for a spot of exposure. But she is likely still to be plugging gaping holes left by an episode that has more to do with privatisation than precipitation.

Yorkshire Water's troubles seem to be a continuation of the storms that befell the likes of British Gas, rather than a sudden calamity from out of a sky that stayed blue too long. Since it became alarmed about supplies in early August, the privatised utility has stumbled from being widely risible to reckless - in its bungled attempts to manage a wholly predictable, if rare, meteorological event. After this week's meeting with the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, it announced that it will hold a public inquiry into the region's drought crisis later this year.

Yet before the drought began, Yorkshire Water was inadvertently stimulating the new politics of consumer protest. It raised prices by twice the rate of inflation while reporting that its chairman's pay had increased by 169 per cent since privatisation (not counting his share options worth pounds 127,000). Customers had a derisory pounds 10 bonus, shareholders a 21 per cent increase in dividends from record profits of pounds 161m.

While the company was found to be illegally polluting Yorkshire rivers, it was losing 100 million gallons a day from old pipes and blaming the rain gods for favouring the wrong places. It notified hosepipe bans in the wrong areas, refused to offer rebates, and was revealed to have the worst repair record of any water company. This week it hired a fleet of tankers to replenish supplies in Halifax with water piped from a reservoir near Huddersfield. The convoy left empty; the pipes burst.

As predictable as the dry spell was the tiny but encouraging press cutting that dropped at last on chairman Sir Gordon Jones's desk this week. The regional weather forecast graphic published in the Yorkshire Post was dominated by dark clouds leaking rain. And if the heavens prove bountiful, Sir Gordon may yet, with some justification, mutter, "Crisis, what crisis?"

Consider the dry demography. Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield and the western fringe of Leeds have endured restrictions on non-essential use and hosepipes since early August. The rest of Leeds has not; nor has Sheffield and the south, nor Hull and the East Riding, nor Scarborough and most of the North. Even Bradford looks resplendent despite the restrictions. The council's hanging baskets are a contender for the Britain in Bloom prize. Peel Park's borders are a splash of colour.

From the marrows at Sheffield Show last week to the bowling greens of Heckmondwike, Yorkshire was almost lush. The restrictions on water use affected about 1 million people, fewer than one in four of Yorkshire Water's captive customers. For most of them the restrictions were irksome, not life threatening. What's wrong with a hosepipe ban, asked one local radio station of its gardening expert. Far from a gloomy prognosis for herbaceous borders, the expert welcomed the decision. Millions of plants would be saved from the horticultural equivalent of drowning; a few watering cans would suffice.

A hosepipe uses 300 gallons an hour, more than an average family uses in three days. The statistic comes from Yorkshire Water, and its spokesmen had many more to back its claim that the company was doing a good job, even in the worst hit areas of the Aire and Calder valleys. Sure, the Victoria pumping works at Halifax broke down, leaving 20,000 people without water for a weekend. But it was a four-year-old station, showing that Yorkshire was investing in infrastructure. Two-thirds of profits were reinvested in the company. Sure, 27 per cent of its water was leaking away, but losses were being plugged at the staggering rate of 1 per cent a year; and piping water around hilly Yorkshire was more prone to leaks because of the bends. Attempt to mend all the leaks and Yorkshire would be gridlocked in construction works. And Sir Gordon's pounds 180,000 salary was described as modest; the chairman of North West Water is on pounds 350,000 plus share options. Yorkshire Water suspended its share options scheme three years ago.

Privately, however, Yorkshire Water admits to mistakes. It did not give priority to extending its grid to the Bradford area. As Sheffield, surrounded by parched Pennine hills, gulped water from aquifers below York, Bradford had to eke out supplies from the same ochre moors. The investment priority was in the east of the county; Yorkshire Water made a mistake. It was compounded by the decision to write to Bradford businesses, advising them to relocate production or send staff on extended holidays. Many employers could do neither, and those that could might have responded less angrily to private approaches.

Local authorities, asked by Yorkshire Water for help in coping with the emergency, were at first astonished, then angry: "As a privatised company you don't allow us to influence your policies. It's no longer our problem, and if you want our help, let's see the colour of your money." There was the rub. The rules have changed since the last drought, in 1976, when local councillors ran water authorities, and water was in the political grid. Water may have been taken out of local politics and into the private sector, but (sadly for Conservative governments) it remains close to the public heart.

Instead, the Yorkshire drought has caused one of the most prolific flowerings of consumer power and outraged opinion. The pressure group Yorkshire Water Watch has been in the vanguard in the past 18 months, gathering a unique coalition to harry the company on the beaches, in the hills, anywhere its services, 66 per cent more expensive since privatisation in 1990, reach. Under the Water Watch banner, the anti-fluoride brigade now marches with the campaign against meters.

Water Watch members buy Yorkshire Water shares. They use the shareholders' free phone line, call the company secretary and claim the figures do not add up. It is not the hosepipe ban that is recruiting new Water Watch members. According to Penny Ward, Water Watch chairwoman, "The public is annoyed that water has become a commodity, and so much money is made from it.

"Everybody is guilty of wasting water, from dishwashers to Yorkshire Water, whose leakage rate should be 15 per cent. But Yorkshire Water is also spending money on risky businesses. Mother Nature has exposed Yorkshire Water, and people are coming forward with local problems: no water from bore holes in Ripon, sewage leaking in the Aire Valley. The shareholders' dividends [pounds 50m last year, compared with pounds 11m repairing leaks] are huge, and people are concluding that there's a rotten element in Yorkshire Water."

Nobody in Bradford this week seriously suggested returning Yorkshire Water to the public sector. But, for all the company's protests, the figures do not balance. "All this extra to pay on bills and still the service doesn't deliver," was a typical response. The public seems to be shunning popular capitalism in favour of popular consumerism. Throughout Yorkshire there has been talk of not paying water bills. Such discontent will not disappear with the filling of reservoirs; it is the filling of shareholders' pockets that troubles Yorkshire Water's customers, and the conviction that rhododendrons have died in vain.