Water firm `planned to move 1m people'

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The Independent Online
Yorkshire Water asked local authorities to consider a plan to evacuate up to a million people from their homes and businesses as last summer's drought hit water supplies in the region, an inquiry was told yesterday.

The extent of the crisis was such that lives would have been lost, schools closed and businesses plunged into financial crisis if reservoirs had run dry and standpipes and rota cuts been introduced, it was claimed.

The grim picture was painted on the first day of a public inquiry into how Yorkshire Water dealt with the drought. The evacuation plan was ruled out by local authorities and the privatised water company had to top up supplies in a pounds 3m a week tankering operation that ferried in 60 tons of water a day.

Yorkshire Water, whose managing director Trevor Newton announced his resignation last week, was plagued by claims that a quarter of supplies were lost through leakage and it was ill equipped to tackle the crisis.

The independent inquiry, chaired by Professor John Uff, a barrister and water engineer is expected to last two weeks. The hearing at Leeds Town Hall was told that the Department of the Environment has no plans to submit a report despite an invitation to do dso. Ofwat, the water regulator, has announced it is carrying out its own inquiry into the crisis.

In its submission presented yesterday, Bradford Council said the evacuation option was a desperate measure suggested by Yorkshire Water after it ruled out the use of tankers to bring in supplies. That decision was later reversed. Bradford said last night that the evacuation plan was "ludicrous.''

Tony Kilner, representing Bradford Council told the inquiry: "Yorkshire Water had no emergency plans for a drought situation. With the prospect of standpipes it could have been disastrous." The effect of rationing would be devastating , he added: "Public services would have been stretched to breaking point. Social services believe the effects of rota cuts would have been catastrophic."

Schools would have been forced to close because teachers would have been unable to maintain minimum standards of hygiene in the classroom.

Dr Chris Worth, director of public health for the West Yorkshire Health Authority, said Yorkshire Water failed to foresee the serious public health implications of a reduction or possible cessation of water supplies. "The health and well being of the population at large of West Yorkshire were under serious threat had the proposed rota cuts gone ahead. Lives could have been lost."

The Yorkshire Water Chamber of Commerce told the inquiry its members suffered losses in preparing for the worst case scenario and blamed Yorkshire Water. "There was a slow reaction throughout. They were praying for rain."

John Holroyd, a barrister representing Yorkshire Water, made it clear that the company would robustly defend its handling of the drought although he admitted there were lessons to be learned. He emphasised its position should be considered against a background of low rainfall and increased demand which led to the rapid depletion of reservoirs.

He claimed the Yorkshire Water has been able to reduce the probability of rota cuts with an pounds 100m programme of new pipelines and pumping stations.

Yorkshire Water last night issues a statement denying the claims by Bradford council had ever been discussed at senior level.

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