Leaks added to Yorkshire's drought woes

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The wrong sort of water running through the pipes contributed to the crisis which threatens 600,000 Yorkshire households with rota cuts, the Dewsbury drought hearing was told yesterday.

Yorkshire Water (YW), the privatised utility, is seeking government powers to cut supplies for 24 hours on alternate days, install standpipes, and reduce mains pressure in response to a seven month drought.

The company yesterday presented its case to Stuart Nixon, a Whitehall inspector at the hearing in Dewsbury town hall. More than 200 objectors strained at the leash at the sight of seven YW executives present at the hearing.

The evidence of Jeffery Davitt, leakage control strategy manager, did little to mollify YW's critics. The company collects only 4 per cent of rainfall, then promptly loses 26 per cent of this through leaks.

One reason for the leaks, according to Mr Davitt, was the peaty, soft water that ran through the company's pipes. The precious commodity long held responsible for the lovely complexions of Northern women was "corrosive to pipes", Mr Davitt said. He revealed YW's "on going leakage control activities", which include "pro actively" finding bursts and fixing them. But one crucial factor had stubbornly resisted even the most innovative management strategies. Only one third of the average amount of rain had fallen since April. It was, YW claimed, a meteorological phenomenon rated by experts at between 500-1 and 1,000-1.

The worst affected areas, including Dewsbury, Halifax and Huddersfield, were down seven pints in the gallon. "There is no alternative to rationing," John Layfield, production director, said. Emergency measures would reduce demand by at least 25 per cent and a fleet of 600 tankers would be working round the clock to fetch emergency supplies from the North-east.

YW tried to preempt its critics yesterday by announcing refunds should rota cuts be implemented. An average household would receive pounds 2 a week, plus a payment of pounds 15 every two weeks for the inconvenience of having to boil water and take other precautions against diseases such as dysentery.

Objectors queued for an hour to register with Mr Nixon the right to take on YW publicly. As the tea dance began in the hall below a voice from the back of the audience told of untapped sources of water. He knew of their whereabouts, but most of the objectors said they knew only of YW's mismanagement of the crisis. They included dyers and fish friers, bakers and brewers, nursing homes and local councils. Most fear the effects of cuts on health and businesses. YW will pay no compensation.

Yorkshire WaterWatch, an umbrella group which has claimed that YW subordinates service to profit, will tell the inquiry that stockpiling by customers during cuts will frustrate attempts to save stocks. Risks of disease would also be increased, WaterWatch claimed.

The inquiry is expected to last until Friday, but Calderdale Council said it may ask the courts to interrupt the hearing if Mr Nixon does not allow cross-examination by objectors of YW executives.