Water company to offer free pipe repairs

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The Independent Online
Britain's biggest water company is to offer to repair leaks in its customers' supply pipes free of charge in an attempt to forestall criticism of the high leakage rates from its mains.

With the new government expected to hold a drought summit next week, Thames Water wants to be seen to be taking the issue of water wastage seriously.

In the latest set of official leakage figures from the industry regulator, Ofwat, Thames was stated to lose 38 per cent of the treated water it puts into the mains - a higher proportion than any other company. It blames that mainly on London clay, the shrinkage of which during dry spells causes fractures.

Two-thirds of the leakage comes from its own network of pipes but the remainder is estimated to be lost on the customer's side, which begins as soon as the supply pipe leaves the street and crosses the outside boundary of a property.

Thames, serving more than 7 million people in and outside London, insists that it is doing everything it can to cut mains leakage and is making progress. But so far it has not joined the growing number of companies who offer to repair leaking supply pipes free of charge - although several will only do this if the customer has a water meter fitted at the same time.

Within three weeks, however, Thames will announce that it will repair any leakage in supply pipes, meter or no meter. But it will not offer to repair dripping taps or overflowing cisterns, things which, during the election campaign, Labour said it would insist on companies doing if it came to power.

The likeliest date for the Government's drought summit is 21 May, and it is expected to last half a day. Water companies, the industry's two regulators, consumer and environmental groups are being asked to attend, as well as the press. John Prescott, Secretary of State for the Environment, will open the proceedings and Environment minister Michael Meacher will wrap them up.

There are fears that, under the gaze of the media, the event itself will be little more than a talking shop and public-relations exercise with all the participants merely repeating their existing lines on dealing with the drought.

The last government was reluctant to intervene as water shortages deepened, leaving matters to the two regulators - Ofwat and the Environment Agency. The new set of ministers want to intervene more, but in the absence of any fresh legislation, it will be a matter of leaning on the companies and the regulators.

The election itself seems, at least superficially, to have broken the drought. Ever since 1 May, there has been abundant rainfall: with only one-third of the month having expired, more than half of May's average rainfall has already fallen in England and Wales, and more is forecast. But while this has put back the threat of hosepipe bans by several weeks, much of the south and east of England is still in drought after two dry years and an exceptionally dry start to this year.

The dry years

Summer 1995: Yorkshire Water spent pounds 47m trucking in water as almost one-third of supplies leaked from pipes.

March 1996: Inquiry told Yorkshire Water suggested Bradford be evacuated if reservoirs ran dry.

June 1996: Row after Yorkshire Water's earnings leapt from pounds 142m to pounds 162.2m.

July 1996: Thames Water heads leaks league, losing 333 litres for every household.

July 1996: Government took legal action against South West Water as supplies claimed unfit for consumption.

February 1997: Water companies warned supplies were about to reach crisis point after driest winter for 230 years.

April 1997: Tankers on standby outside Chace Community School, north London, where 1,200 pupils were sent home after water dried up.