Blair's 'Watergate': A leak too far at Number 10

Government's own watchdog says Downing Street wastes vast amounts of water
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Tony Blair is facing his very own Watergate at No 10 as he stands condemned this weekend by his official environmental advisers for wasting massive amounts of water in the official prime ministerial residence.

The Independent on Sunday can disclose that the government department that runs the building is the most profligate in Whitehall, soaking up four times as much water as it should because it has failed to plug leaky pipes. The Sustainable Development Commission, the Prime Minister's own green watchdog, says it is "seriously disappointed".

The disclosure comes amid growing public disquiet at having to stop watering gardens or washing cars while massive amounts of water are wasted. A recent opinion poll showed that nine out of 10 Britons thought water companies should be made to fix all leaks before being allowed to take any profits.

Last week Thames Water was chastised by the regulator for failing to meet targets to reduce leakage for a fifth successive year while making profits of £364m. It paid its German boss £8m and imposed record price increases on customers.

The firm, which has applied to impose drought orders on its eight million customers, says it may continue to miss leak-reduction targets for three more years. And documents seen by The Independent on Sunday show it is selling scores of millions of litres of water to a neighbouring area that is not planning any hosepipe bans or restrictions.

Earlier this month Thames applied for emergency powers to impose draconian restrictions on "non-essential" use of water by Londoners, including a possible ban on washing trains and aeroplanes unless safety is at risk.

Downing Street's water wastage is revealed by official figures showing the Cabinet Office uses 30.07 cubic metres of water per person every year. This is almost four times the official target of 7.7 cubic meters per person, and the worst performance of any government department. The Sustainable Development Commission said yesterday that it wants "an explanation for this continued poor performance" and expects "steps to address it".

The disclosure is bound to increase anger at the way water companies and official bodies allow vast amounts of water to leak from their pipes at a time when draconian restrictions are being imposed on the public.

Thames Water leaks 894 million litres every day, enough to supply a city the size of Leeds, and is facing fines of £140m for failing to meet its leakage targets. In parts of north London more water escapes from pipes than reaches consumers.

A Populus poll for the BBC found that 89 per cent of Britons think "water companies should be required to completely fix all the leaks before they are allowed to keep any profit". Eighty-two per cent insist that "the amount that could be saved by people using less water at home is nothing compared to what the water companies [could] save through [fixing] leaks", and 56 per cent want the water industry to be "renationalised".

During the last great drought in 1976, when water was publicly owned, people economised and consumption fell by a quarter. But huge water company profits and directors' salaries - and rising prices - could mean that this time round they object. As Lady Young, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, put it: "The British public understandably says, 'Why should we worry when all that water is leaking away?'"

To make matters worse, The Independent on Sunday has found out that Thames Water is selling 68 million litres of drinking water a day - at the height of the drought - to a neighbouring water firm in Essex, an area which has not been so seriously affected by drought.

The sale, worth £2m a year, is made under a 43-year-old deal with Essex and Suffolk Water to provide 30m tonnes of water every year for consumers in western and southern Essex, historically the driest part of England. Consumer groups want the deal renegotiated, but Thames Water says it is legally bound to provide the water and has reduced the amount by a quarter from 90 million litres a day since it declared a hosepipe ban in April.

Glen Watts, a senior official in the Environment Agency, said there was a genuine need for water companies in southern England to share water where necessary, because some areas were relatively water-starved. But he added: "This year, when water is scarce in the Thames catchment, it would be sensible for both companies to discuss how to make best use of the limited resources available."

A spokesman for the Consumer Council for Water said Thames faced "a huge credibility gap" with customers and that renegotiating this deal would help Thames save water: "These arrangements were ... made in customers' interests, but those interests change over time. This one is now 43 years old, and circumstances have changed. Thames needs to be pulling out all the stops to make sure it secures water for this summer and beyond.

Additional reporting by Hannah Crown


Pool Hustler

Fill up the paddling pool for the children, then once the fun is over scoop out the contents on to your borders or simply tip it over the lawn. The inflatable type with soft sides is particularly suitable for overspill.

Tanked Up

Buy a bowser: a portable, battery-powered tank that holds several litres of water and has a hose attached so you can target it directly at plants, cutting down on spillage. Already used by groundkeepers at Downing Street, so it must be legal.

Clean Sweep

Have an outdoor spring clean. You can use a hose to wash down your patio and drive perfectly legally. Then you simply take a broom and sweep the run-off on to your lawn, or collect it in any way you can.

Drip Feed

Hanging baskets can be given a dowsing but pot plants on the patio are thought to be unworthy. Just double-up by placing your pots under the baskets and catching

the overspill. Perhaps your baskets are feeling particularly thirsty some days.

Water Warfare

Impromptu water fights are often a nightmare for parents, but if the kids happen to be squirting supersoakers at each other over the back lawn, then all the better. Invite their friends round and supply them with waterbombs and buckets. Stand well back.

Neighbourhood Wash

A quiet word with others in your street can go a long way. If they're not going to report what they see over the property line then there's no reason for you to either. A £1,000 fine isn't good for anybody. Remember, careless talk costs.