Sir Gordon's terrible year

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The Independent Online
WHEN Sir Gordon Jones, the outgoing chairman of Yorkshire Water, comes to toast the New Year he, like the Queen before him, may look back on an annus horribilis like no other. It was the worst water shortage for a generation in Yorkshire, and however many times Sir Gordon and his cohorts blamed the weather, nobody believed them.

Instead he was lambasted by his customers, reviled by the water regulator, attacked by the National Rivers Authority for Yorkshire's leaking pipes, and finally ordered to London for acarpeting by the Environment Secretary, John Gummer.

But there were some crumbs of comfort, namely a pounds 189,000 salary, a pounds 160,000 profit dividend, and the prospect of a pounds 381,000 pension. The figures only served to incense his critics further.

The way Yorkshire Water has managed the water supply for its two and a half million customers this year confirmed all the worst fears raised in 1989 when the regional water monopolies were sold off as private companies.

In June Yorkshire had reported operating profits of pounds 200m on a turnover of pounds 500m, and celebrated by increasing its shareholders' dividend by 21 per cent. It meant the value of its shares had risen by 50 per cent since privatisation, and Sir Gordon, 68, was rewarded with a salary that had quadrupled. As a magnanimous gesture, the cash-rich company offered its customers a pounds 10 rebate each.

Yet within a few weeks the Yorkshire Water envelopes started dropping through letterboxes, not with cheery news of a cheque, but with a warning of supplies in reservoirs running low. It was time for the households of Yorkshire, be they in dales, moors, or gritstone towns, to start cleaning teeth with a cup of water rather than a running tap.

It was only a matter of days before 500,000 households in Bradford, Calderdale, Craven, Kirklees and parts of Leeds were put under a hosepipe ban. The crisis became so bad that Yorkshire Water also applied for an emergency abstraction order enabling it to pump an extra three million gallons of water a day from the River Wharfe. Environmentalists warned that the consequences could be dire for fish, plants and wildlife.

As the scorching sun beat down, one of Britain's wettest counties was suffering its worst water shortage for a generation. "Whenever rain has been forecast, it seems to have stopped falling before coming over the top of the Pennines," pleaded a company spokesman.

Yet its excuses wouldn't wash. The company was accused through greed and mismanagement of failing to modernise an antiquated pipe system that leaks nearly a third of the water it carries. And not just by consumer groups such as Yorkshire Water Watch, but by the Government quango, the National Rivers Authority.

It criticised the water companies for permitting some of the highest leakage rates in the developed world. The authority's demand that Yorkshire should supply them with weekly reports so that the situation could be monitored was followed by a summons from John Gummer that Sir Gordon should travel to London and proffer some sort of explanation for the sorry state of affairs.

Sir Gordon, however, refused to accept that he had been given a dressing- down by the Environment Secretary. But he did admit some culpability; "We didn't spend enough money on leakage reduction as a means of securing supply."

Sir Gordon, who lives outside Rotherham, spent much of his earlier career in heavy industry, spending time in several steel companies, before becoming chairman of publicly-owned Yorkshire Water in 1983.

If Sir Gordon had hoped the pressure on him would ease as the autumn slipped into winter, he was mistaken. The reservoir levels continued to sink. As a thousand tanker journeys a day were being made through Yorkshire to supply water, Yorkshire Water applied for a new drought order from John Gummer allowing it to stop replenishing river water supplies from reservoirs to the Calder, Colne, Holme, Ribble and Wharfe.

Then the public health director for West Yorkshire health authority warned that the implication of the cuts in water supply were horrendous, and an outbreak of dysentery was becoming a real possibility.

Eventually the weather did show some clemency. A threat of 24-hour rota cuts to 600,000 customers in West Yorkshire was lifted as heavy rain and snow started to fall.

But it was only a temporary measure. The cuts have been suspended until the New Year, and the company faces a public inquiry in February into its handling of the crisis. As Sir Gordon contemplates retirement, he may conclude that for troubled businessmen it never rains, but it pours.