Drought goes on at Yorkshire Water

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The Independent Online
And the drought goes on. When Yorkshire Water hit upon the idea of a fully independent inquiry into its handling, or rather mishandling, of last summer's drought, it seemed an ingenious way of deflecting public criticism and buying itself time.

Admittedly, the public hearings that followed under the chairmanship of Professor John Uff of King's College, London, proved somewhat uncomfortable as details emerged of how mass evacuations of parts of the county had been considered.

But it seemed a price worth paying. For even as the inquiry was going on in public, plans were being laid in private to flush away the incumbent management.

Gordon Jones, the man who led the water industry into privatisation, has gone from the chairman's job. Trevor Newton, who famously confided he had not bathed or showered for three months took an early bath from his job as managing director. The finance director, meanwhile, resigned for personal reasons. The new chairman is an accountant, Branden Gough, who lives a safe distance away in Kent, supported by a former head of the National Rivers Authority as his operational manager.

Since it was inevitable that the top management of Yorkshire Water would be criticised this was not surprising. Indeed from the new management's perspective it is positively good news since it was entitled to expect that yesterday's publication of the inquiry report might draw a line under last year's fiasco.

The message, no doubt, that Yorkshire Water would like to convey is that it is under new management. Remember the team that nearly brought you standpipes in the street and did bring you the spectacle of water being brought in by road tanker from the next country? Well they've gone.

The problem, however, with independent commissions of inquiry is that, by their very nature they are difficult to control, particularly when they are given the term of reference that Professor Uff had.

Thus, it looks ominously as if the legacy of Messrs Jones and Newton will return to hunt their successors. Professor Uff concludes that the river transfer scheme announced by Yorkshire Water two months ago to take supplies from the Tees is indeed the most likely solution to the country's needs. There is, however, a nasty sting in the tail. The Professor also suggests that Yorkshire Water should start delivering more of its declared and future efficiency savings to customers, rather than shareholders in recognition of last year's failures.

The former management at Yorkshire let its customers down. The new management is being asked to make shareholders pay. With an even more severe drought looming this summer, it may be an invitation they cannot refuse.