Thames in hot water as its HQ is hosed down

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The Independent Online

The water cascading down the windows of a Reading office block as it was pressure-washed to a gleaming finish this week might have been enough to irritate passing workers banned from sprinkling their gardens. But closer inspection of the list of tenants inhabiting the freshly-scrubbed Reading Bridge House yesterday revealed reason to turn that irritation into a full-blown row over corporate hypocrisy.

The offices being doused with industrial washers that use up to 2,400 litres per hour are home to Thames Water, the instigator of a hosepipe ban currently prohibiting eight million people from so much as waving a sprinklerat a parched lawn or herbaceous border on pain of a £1,000 fine.

Three floors of the building, just yards from the Thames in the centre of the Berkshire town, house 250 workers for the utility company, which has one of the worst leakage rates in Britain. And concern over the profligate use of water following what Thames describes as the third driest winter in history - with rainfall up to 40 per cent below average - was shared by the company's own employees.

One worker inside the building said: "The contracting company has been pressure washing the building since Monday. Thames Water occupies three floors of the building and it seems so hypocritical to me that we are not allowed to water our gardens but Thames Water is allowed to have a clean building." The utility company, owned by the German-based conglomerate RWE, immediately launched a damage limitation exercise, underlining that it was merely a tenant of Reading Bridge House and had written to its landlords a number of months ago asking for its windows to be left unwashed. It is understood that the building, which stands opposite Thames Water's corporate heaquarters, was being jet washed by contractors employed by Nelson Bakewell, a corporate building management company.

A spokesman for Thames Water, whose parent company last year made a profit of £1.4bn, said: "We fully understand that customers who saw this building being cleaned may feel aggrieved. But it is not owned by us and we have been in contact with the management company several times asking that it not be washed in this manner. They are entitled to use pressure washers as a commercial user. But we consider their actions to be highly irresponsible and it has put us in an embarrassing situation."

The episode serves to highlight the differing regulations that apply to domestic and corporate customers of Thames Water, which says it is spending £190m a year to reduce the 915 million litres of water its network loses every day. In the latest major leak, a water main burst last week in Datchet, Berkshire, flooding dozens of gardens.

Domestic Thames Water users, who account for 68 per cent of total demand, were banned from 3 April from using hoses to water plants, lawns and hanging baskets. But none of Britain's water companies has yet applied for a drought order, which would impose a similar ban on companies and public bodies. The company carrying out the jet washing of Reading Bridge House was therefore not doing anything illegal.

The Thames Water spokesman said: "We believe the hosepipe ban sends a very clear message about the need for water conservation. We will see what effect it has before considering further measures."

What you can and can't do

Domestic users can...

Use a watering can or bucket to water garden or allotment; use hose to wash down yard, driveway or patio, use hose to clean garden furniture, dustbin, bicycle or motorbike; use hose to top up fish pond, hot tub or swimming pool

Domestic users cannot...

Water lawn, plants, allotment, hanging baskets or potted plants with hose, sprinkler or similar; clean car, van, caravan or taxi with a hose

Commercial customers or public authorities can...

Use a hose or sprinkler to water hanging baskets or potted plants; water all sports grounds, including golf courses and tennis courts, with hose or sprinkler system; use industrial pressure washers to clean building exteriors; operate fountains and water attractions