Tempers fray down on the promenade

DROUGHT; 'I'm no socialist, but. . .' In the southwest, water rage is gripping residents and visitors alike, writes Decca Aitkenhead
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The Independent Online
PRETTY West Country resorts such as Torquay are not known for radicalism, but Britain's worsening water shortage is prompting the unlikely spectacle of a politically militant promenade.

Straddling the sea wall on Friday, holidaymaker Graham Watson made his feelings plain. "If you buy goods that are faulty, you should take them back, but you can't do that with water. It's a private monopoly that's rotten. The profit motive will always drive how companies react to situations like this. They are in business to pay their shareholders.

"We weren't expecting all this bother. It's a bit of a blow really."

What Mr Watson and the other two million tourists who visit the West Country in August were not expecting were instructions to use less water, applications for drought orders, hosepipe bans and a stomach-bug scare which is forcing the Torbay area to boil its drinking water. Last week the tempers of tourists and locals alike were hotting up, and the seafront began resembling a soapbox forum.

"Now I'm no socialist," glared Arthur Harris, a retired resident taking tea on the white terraces of the Belgrave Hotel. "I've voted Conservative all my life. But I still think privatising a public utitility just isn't on."

South West Water is imposing some of the harshest restrictions in the country. It has applied for drought orders that would ban car-washing, watering sports grounds and filling swimming pools in many areas.

Yet this is one of the wettest regions in the country, and it has the highest water charges. South West Water's profits last year were pounds 63.2m.

The company's defence is robust. The cost of cleaning themany beaches is vast, water leakage has fallen to the national average, and this is the driest period since 1727. "To prepare fully for these conditions would be tantamount to building a 10-lane motorway to cope with Bank Holiday traffic," a spokesman protested.

Perched beside a modest pool a little inland, Mary Boswell and Isabella Palmer were unimpressed. The two women worry that the pool's use may soon be curtailed. Both have retired to mobile homes in the area.

Mrs Boswell said: "We save washing-up water. We don't keep flushing the toilet for every you-know-what. If everybody is doing their little bit at home, it doesn't seem fair to be denied this little pleasure. It's no fault of ours, is it?"

The owner of the pool and the Torbay Holiday Motel, Graham Booth, is livid. He has been fielding anxious calls about the water problems from visitors, and some have decided not to come. His entry in this month's Literary Review poetry competition, on the theme of Avarice, is entitled "Passing The Buck (To Bill Fraser, MD of South West Water)". One verse reads:

"With fixed demand and one suppy,

The Profit now could be controlled,

So prices duly went sky high,

To fill investors' pots of gold."

Anxiety about water extends well beyond the seafront. A car-valet hosing down a white Porsche on the forecourt of Beechdown Garage, inland from Paignton, needs the hose every day. "If you were spending a lot of money on a car like this, you wouldn't want it covered in mud, would you?" he asked.

The woman assistant at a nearby Jet garage fretted: "We took pounds 50 in the last two hours on the carwash. We couldn't afford to lose business like that." She is more resigned about her garden. "Dead. Died. No more."

Farmers in rural Devon and Cornwall are worried that the water they are allowed to extract from rivers may be limited. Golf-course owners fear for their greens. The regional National Rivers Authority has rescued more than 20,000 fish suffocating in dangerously low rivers over the past month.

For many not involved in tourism, it is tempting to blame visitors for creating an unmanageable demand. "Those tourists don't worry about it. They have their showers and then head off home to Birmingham," complained Pam Parker, a local Council for the Protection of Rural England spokeswoman.

Back in Torquay, this inflames Graham Watson, who comes from Yorkshire every year with his wife and two young sons. "Sickening, isn't that, really? What's this place meant to be? A holiday resort. You've paid to come here, you expect to be able to use the water. We haven't even tried to use less of it."

The hosepipe ban will soon take its toll on Torquay's browning municipal gardens. On Friday the near-beige bowling green had missed its usual watering. "But you come to these types of resorts because of the effort they usually put into the floral displays, don't you?" sniffed Mick Crouch, on holiday from London with his wife.

The stomach bug, Cryptosporidium, is still posing more problems than other water restrictions for people in Torbay. Public anger at the cost of constant boiling is mounting, and hotels are resorting to buying bottled water. South West Water deny the outbreak is related to the weather, but few are convinced. Rumour has it that the bug originated at a treatment works where water was being recycled, due to the shortage.

At the Torbay Holiday Motel, Graham Booth has his own theory. "They are in a mess, so they're just scaremongering. They say there's a bug, and hope that if we think we have to boil the water, we might use less."

On the eve of VJ Day, the West Country was busy preparing for celebrations. But the riot of Union Jacks and bunting could not conceal the bitter anger, blame and counter-blame abounding over water.

Down on the beach at sunset, pensioner Alice Greeves was reflective. "We didn't mind all the shortages and rationing and that in the war. We knew it was for a good reason. It's not the same when you think it's someone's fault, is it?"