Election '97: Dobson insists water firms repair customers' leaks free

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The Independent Online
Within days of being elected, a Labour government would demand that water companies offer free leak-repair services to all their customers, the party's environment spokesman, Frank Dobson, said yesterday.

All the companies would be expected to set up hotlines to which customers could report leaking supply pipes, dripping taps and overflowing toilets.

The companies will be summoned to a "drought busting" summit meeting with ministers, the water industry regulators and representatives of consumer and environmental groups. It would be held as soon as possible after election day, and seek consensus on tackling this year's looming drought and any future ones.

But yesterday Mr Dobson, a persistent critic of the privatised water industry, said he expected the companies to start work now on an "immediate crash programme" to mend leaks from customers' pipes free of charge. They would have to present their plans at the meeting.The companies would not be allowed to take extra water from boreholes or rivers if the drought worsened unless they had implemented such plans.

There is no legal obligation on water companies to repair customers' leaks and Labour has no plans for immediate legislation to change this - but it is confident they will comply.

Yesterday Thames Water, Britain's largest water company which also has the highest leakage rate from its mains, said: "We'd have to look at exactly what they say if they're elected ... But we've got a big enough job to do on the leaks in our own mains pipes."

John Rayner, managing director of the Tendring Hundred water company in Essex, said: "I don't think companies will have difficulty in complying with this proposal." His company is in the very driest part of the country, has the lowest leakage rate and has not had any hosepipe bans in living memory. But it does have a policy of metering households which use a lot of water. Labour, however, is strongly opposed to compulsory metering.

"Selective water metering is the sensible way forward - it has to be," Mr Rayner said. Ofwat also said the best way of detecting small leaks was to install meters, which can pick up the continuous escape of water.