Thirst for profits blamed as Yorkshire cuts water

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The Independent Online
JONATHAN FOSTER

Powers to restrict the water supplies of 600,000 people in the Bradford area of West Yorkshire were sought yesterday by Yorkshire Water, amid protests that the company's drive for profits were contributing to the imminent drought.

A government inspector heard objections from conservationists and consumer groups sceptical of the water company's claim that the extra powers were an unavoidable consequence of low rainfall in Bradford's Pennine water catchment area. Critics said the shortage was due to leaks of up to 80 million gallons a day from the region's mains, and low investment in a grid supply system.

The inspector's recommendations to John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, will be made within 10 days. If Yorkshire Water is granted the two drought orders it seeks, sports grounds, parks, car washes, and private swimming pools may lose their water supply. Households could later be restricted to standpipes, and supplies taken from the River Wharfe at a time of year when water is usually added.

The neat gardens and patios of Mount Drive in Leeds were saturated yesterday for more than three hours after the area experienced its third pipe burst in a month. One resident, Sara Grantham, said Yorkshire Water officials had responded with "lack of urgency" after being told of the burst. She added: "Thousands of gallons are being lost, but they are telling us to save it."

The Department of the Environment said Yorkshire Water shared with other water companies in Wales and north-west England the worst record of loss through leakage, largely because of the difficulties of maintaining services in hilly terrain. It is the fifth time in seven years that the company has sought drought orders; two applications made last year were subsequently withdrawn. In 1992, 16 drought orders were made, one to Yorkshire Water and the remainder to companies in the south of England.

The company said investment since privatisation in 1990 had enabled the rate of loss from leaks to be reduced by 1 per cent a year. Average household bills increased by 66 per cent during the five years, from pounds 123 to pounds 208.

The National Rivers Authority, which monitors water company performance, yesterday told Yorkshire Water to "take immediate and effective measures to manage leakage, control demand for drinking water and overcome the problems of supply in the Bradford area".

The NRA publicly supported the company's drought order applications, but officials are privately irritated by Yorkshire Water's failure to extend to all of West Yorkshire the regional grid system which overcomes extreme local shortages elsewhere. If the NRA becomes more critical of the company, prices may be pegged by the industry regulator, Offwat.

Yorkshire Water said there was no immediate prospect of standpipes; the restrictions it sought applied to one in nine households in the region. "If we do not have these measures, consumption will remain very, very high. Customers have reduced demand a little, but not enough, and the orders are an attempt to stave off the need for standpipes," a spokesman said.

WaterWatch, a consumer group, claimed the water company's inefficiency had caused the Bradford drought.

The group said that rainfall in early this year more than compensated for the recent dry spell and extraction from the Wharfe could jeopardise wildlife in the Yorkshire Dales.

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