1. Economics
March 15, 2018updated 29 Jul 2021 11:37am

Thames Water has let Londoners down. It needs to do better

By Leonie Cooper

A Labour member of the London Assembly on the city’s water provider.

As expected, the recent deluge of snow brought huge disruption to our capital, with trains delayed, flights cancelled and traffic piling up. Whilst the transport network recovered, one of the consequences of the arctic weather was the cut-off of water supply to thousands of homes in across London, after pipes expanded and burst in the thaw. Frustratingly, though the scale of the problem was alarming, it was anything but unexpected.

A number of schools had to close and approximately 20,000 homes and businesses in London were left without supply for days on end, forcing thousands of residents to rely on bottled water to get by. There were also testimonies of scenes in supermarket with shelves and fridges stripped naked of all water bottles, and reports of smaller shop owners allegedly looking to cynically profit from the disarray by charging exorbitant prices. As a consequence, many exasperated Londoners had to travel miles to reach emergency water collection points – only to find that supplies had run out there too.

The blame for the protracted outage lies squarely with Thames Water. Londoners who were affected rightly criticised the company for its lack of communication, slow responses and their failure to provide accurate updates on when water is likely to be restored. 

It has been welcome to see that Thames Water has now made a commitment to directly contact everyone who suffered from the disruption, and offer up to £150 of compensation. Nonetheless, its handling of the situation has been poor across the board.

Over the last few months, there have been a number of incidents of pipes bursting in London. In just one week in January, 500 engineers were reportedly called out to repair more than 1,000 leaks. Considering this, the recent events have merely been the tip of the iceberg.  Last year, Thames Water was fined £8.6m by the water industry regulator Ofwat for failing to live up to its commitments to reduce leakage. Shockingly, in 2016-2017, the company lost approximately 677m litres.

Under pressure from the regulator and the London Assembly, the company was forced to admit that its response times to bursts has been unacceptable, and it has since vowed to launch a comprehensive review of its strategy. However, its response to recent bursts suggests it is dragging its feet and struggling to meetits targets. The speed and volume of the water in the pipes under our streets can fill an Olympic swimming pool in 40 minutes. As we’ve seen, the consequential damage can be significant, so it is absolutely crucial that Thames Water takes more urgent action to improve response times.

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The company’s preventative strategy has not been up to scratch. As Labour’s London Assembly Spokesperson for the Environment, I have made the case exhaustively that Thames Water should urgently put in place more robust measures to prevent any further large-scale incidents from occurring in the first place. This has been echoed by Ofwat, who have accused water companies of having “fallen well short on their forward planning”. 

We know that Thames Water have the significant problem on its hands that thousands of kilometers of London’s pipes date from the Victorian era, with the cast iron mains unable to cope with the pressures of freezing temperatures. Alongside my colleagues on the London Assembly Environment Committee, I have been assured by the company’s senior officials that there is a plan to replace the antiquated pipes. However, whilst Thames Water is not known for its quick fixes, the officials informed the Assembly that the replacement process could take up to 40 years at an estimated cost of of £20bn.

It is essential that Thames Water now properly invest its resources in upgrading their pipe networks. Thames Water recently published a draft 80 year plan in which it has pledged to reduce leakage by a minimum of 15 per cent by 2025. However, in January’s London Assembly Environment Committee meeting, the officials conceded that they were far behind realistically achieving this, and indeed were behind their previous, lower, leakage reduction target.

With the vast amount of disruption that has already taken place this year to homes, businesses and schools caused by flooding and loss of water supply, it is abundantly clear that Thames Water must quickly step-up to confront the many challenges that it faces – and stop leaving Londoners high and dry.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.

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