Leading Article: Fiasco in Yorkshire

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The Independent Online
The scene is a small Bradford public house close to the end of the century. The men in the snug bar are reminiscing about the days of hardship before the French bought the local water company to sort out the perpetual mess it was in.

"Aye, I went for three months using the same cup o' water to brush me teeth in," says the first. "You were lucky having any water, I used a dry brush for six months. I remember when the water company came to rip out the bath and replace it with a shower. Enforced showering, they called it." "That's nothing," answers the third. "We lost all our belongings in t'great water evacuations of 1996, when thousands were forced marched over the Penines in search of water."

"You lot are soft," concluded the fourth. "Things got so bad in our neck of the woods the only way you could get water was through taking it from the North Sea and desalinating it."

This might be funny if it did not sound eerily like a brainstorming session among the hapless senior executives of Yorkshire Water. It takes quite a lot to displace British Gas from the top spot at Britain's most disliked utility. But the boys at Yorkshire water, led by the sorry Mr Trevor Newton, have done just that. The mess that Yorkshire Water has got into, revealed so tellingingly at the independent inquiry which opened this week in Leeds, would be comic had it not got so close to catastrophe.

Mr Newton has admitted that despite waves of investment the company has still failed to meet its targets for reducing the the amount of water that leaks out of its pipes. The performance of Yorkshire Water will be seen as a test case of the effectiveness of regulation of the privatised water industry.

There is not enough competition in the water industry to drive out incompetent managers. This case has shown it requires an unprecedented public outcry to bring change. That does not just cast Yorkshire Water in a poor light, it also suggests that the regulators of the industry, Ofwat and the National Rivers Authority, should be in the dock alongside Mr Newton.