Cheap plastic sewer pipes a hazard, regulator warned

The new water regulator, Philip Fletcher, has been urged to intervene to stop the use of low-grade plastic sewer pipes amid claims that they represent a public health hazard and could leave consumers with a £600m repair bill.

The new water regulator, Philip Fletcher, has been urged to intervene to stop the use of low-grade plastic sewer pipes amid claims that they represent a public health hazard and could leave consumers with a £600m repair bill.

Hepworth, one of the country's leading pipe manufacturers, warned yesterday that use of the low-grade pipes could result in "sewer chaos" unless new curbs were introduced.

The company claimed that confidential water industry tests had shown that rats can easily gnaw their way through the pipes. Jetting machines used by water companies to clear sewer blockages have also been shown to damage the plastic pipes.

Traditionally, sewer pipes have been made out of clay or much more durable alternatives, but there is nothing to stop contractors using cheaper plastic pipes.

Hepworth said that Mr Fletcher, appointed head of Ofwat at the beginning of this month, should intervene to end the water industry's self-regulation of pipe standards.

Three water companies - Thames, Southern and Anglian - have banned the use of the so-called "structured wall" plastic sewer pipes. But at a meeting of water industry technical experts last week a decision was taken to sanction the continued use of the pipes.

There are an estimated 1,000 kilometres of the plastic pipe in use at present, and new pipe is being laid at a rate of 150 kilometres a year. Over 20 years the repair bill could reach £600m.

Although the pipes are installed by housing developers, water companies ultimately assume responsibility for them once they become part of the network, exposing customers to the repair costs.

Ray Doughty, technical director of Hepworth Building Products, said: "Sadly, there are no safeguards in place to prevent water companies from allowing contractors to put price before quality when selecting and installing new sewer pipes. Ofwat needs to put a proper framework in place to ensure that all the companies put quality and environmental considerations ahead of price when planning their sewer network programmes."

Mr Doughty said it was an abrogation of responsibility to to give developers carte blanche to install unsuitable pipes knowing that others would have to pick up the bill in years to come.

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