Burst pipe claims set to reach pounds 500m damage

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Britain's water companies last night promised to get supplies back to normal by the weekend but up to 100,000 people are still having to collect their water from tankers and bowsers. Insurance experts estimate that the total damage caused by burst pipes may reach pounds 500m.

The worst-affected area is in Northumberland where about 50,000 people in the towns of Ashington and Newbiggin, near Morpeth, have had no running water for three days.

In Scotland, 12,000 people in the Strathclyde region have no water, 6,500 of them in the town of Airdrie, and the number of people in the Grampian region with no supplies increased from 8,000 to 10,000 yesterday.

However, the situation around the country yesterday was a substantial improvement on Tuesday when several hundred thousand people were without water because of pipe breakages caused by the new-year thaw.

Jim Conlon, Northumbrian Water's area manager for Ashington, said yesterday that teams would be working flat out to restore supplies. He added: "We estimate it will be 24 to 36 hours before we are satisfied that we have got the majority of services restored."

John Hargreaves, Northumbrian's managing director, said that the problems had been caused by a combination of the sudden and rapid thaw, and the fact that many bursts had occurred in factories and and schools closed for the holiday, which had necessitated cutting off supplies.

He promised that there would be a full review "to see if there is anything we can learn", but rejected suggestions that the crisis had anything to do with privatisation, pointing out that Scotland, where water is still publicly owned, had also been badly hit.

However, Donald Macgregor, national water-workers secretary for the GMB union laid the blame for the crisis on the privatised companies' staff cuts. He said: "The water companies have laid off so many staff that there are now only half the number of people left in many areas of the industry."

Both Northumbrian and North East Water face a huge compensation bill. Each household without water can claim pounds 10 a day after the first 24 hours, which means that the bill for the Ashington and Newbiggin area alone is likely to be about pounds 1m, and the total may be twice that.

Raymond Robertson, a Scottish Office minister, said that the Government would consider financial help for local authorities in Scotland. Such assistance will not be provided in England and Wales.

In Strathclyde, services are expected to be back to normal by the weekend and supplies in Lothian should be restored within two days. Schools and colleges in Grampian, however, will not reopen on Monday after the holiday period because of damage caused to water and heating systems.

Ofwat, the water industry regulating authority in England and Wales, said yesterday that it would be consulting its regional committees to see what lessons could be learnt.