10 years on, Thames Water ordered to pay sewage victims

'I have to call Thames Water at least three or four times a year. The smell catches my throat'

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The Independent Online

Marion pointed proudly to her burgeoning allotment filled with a heavy crop of chard, cabbage and tomatoes, and observed that a decade ago it was in a different state. “Where I’m standing now was ankle deep in raw sewage. I couldn’t touch the plot for a year.”

For Marion and residents of homes backing on to her veg patch in south-east London, the fallout from 11 leaks from sewers managed by Thames Water in 2003 lasted significantly more than 12 months. Indeed, it has taken a decade of obduracy and court proceedings to resolve.

In a £750,000 legal battle, which the Environment Agency observed has cost the Australian-owned company more money than the likely cost of replacing the entire sewer that had caused the problem, Thames Water this week lost a final appeal, with a fine of  £204,000 upheld, and compensation increased to £3,000 for homeowners and £1,000 for allotment holders whose gardens were covered in sewage pouring from manholes.

A magistrate ruled that the water company was guilty on at least nine occasions during the three months of flooding between January and February 2003 of failing to deal adequately with the leaks for reasons that were “financially driven” or a “cost-saving decision”.

For residents of Wimborne Way, the quiet cul-de-sac in Elmers End where the leaks occurred, the suffering has not ended yet.

While Thames Water, identified by the Consumer Council for Water yesterday as having the worst record in Britain for dealing with customer complaints, was wrangling over the extent of its liability, several householders earlier this year once more awoke to find solid waste flooding their gardens from the same manhole covers. It is understood this was caused by a build-up of fat and wet wipes rather than a structural fault, but the damage was such that the company had to once more decontaminate several gardens and, in one case, replace the lawn.

Maureen Adams, 63, a retired secretary, who has lived on the street for 30 years, said: “Some people were very badly affected by the flooding in 2003 and it has taken too long for them to see justice.

“And now we find there is an ongoing problem. I have to call Thames Water at least three or four times a year. The early-warning signal is a dreadful smell. It catches in my throat. Quite often we’ll have a pumping lorry come up. In January, it was there at 4am. It seems to be without end.”

And Marion, who asked not to be identified, added: “Ridiculous is the only word I have for it. I am mystified as to why it has taken a big, powerful company this long to confront its responsibilities. It is not nice to wake up and find the food you want to put on your table swimming in effluent.”

Thames Water, which has made profits of £1.7bn over the past five years, can justifiably point to the crumbling nature of London’s Victorian sewerage system as the reason for the pipe collapse that led to the flooding.

Though the EA mounted its prosecution in 2004, it was not until 2011 that it reached Bromley magistrates’ court and Thames Water was convicted of 15 charges. Its appeal to the Crown Court was lost last week.

Sir Tony Redmond, London and South East chair for the Consumer Council for Water, said:

“Sewer flooding is an incredibly distressing experience for people and that’s why it is really important that companies respond quickly and effectively when it occurs. Companies also need to deal very sympathetically with those that have been affected. It is disappointing that this case has taken so long to reach a satisfactory conclusion.”

Thames Water said: “We deeply regret any impact on our customers or the environment caused by sewage escaping from our 68,000-mile network of sewers.”