Water companies accused of downgrading leaks until drought crisis looms

·4 min read
Flooding in Islington - Leon Neal/Getty Images
Flooding in Islington - Leon Neal/Getty Images

Water companies are increasing efforts to find and fix leaks when a drought is looming, prompting accusations they are waiting until a crisis to act.

Improving leak detection and repair are included in water companies' drought plans, which outline their response during extreme dry weather.

The industry is under pressure over the scale of its leaks as it brings in hosepipe bans for millions of customers as an official drought looms.

Some 2.4 billion litres of water is lost every day to leaks, about 20 per cent of all water use in the UK.

Southern Water, which has brought in restrictions for thousands of its customers in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight, says it will “increase work to find and fix leaks beyond our target” when a drought is impending.

South East Water says it will bring in “enhanced leakage detection” in the case of a moderate drought.

Water companies say leaks can increase during a drought as infrastructure is put under extra strain, but critics say they should be doing more to find and fix leaks before a crisis hits.

“Water companies shouldn’t wait until a crisis to act,” said Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman.

“It is grossly negligent for them to hold out until a drought to finally up their game on fixing leaks. This is a slap in the face for the millions facing hosepipe bans this month.

“For years they have put shareholders’ needs first and now Britain is left with leaking pipes and endless sewage overflows into our rivers. It is time they put the public and environment first.”

Further hosepipe bans are expected across the country as the Government considers announcing official drought status in the worst-hit parts of the country. But critics say water companies’ record on leaks undermines messaging that households should use less water to avoid shortages and further restrictions.

Cost-benefit on fixing leaks

South East England has had the driest year since 1976, data shows, with 144 days with little or no rain since January.

Alistair Chisholm, of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, said there was a cost-benefit analysis by water companies on fixing leaks.

“There was always this concept called the economic level of leakage. And it was just a kind of a cost benefit analysis as to whether it was worth it to the customer to invest,” he said.

“It’s cheaper to treat up lots of water, and then let it leak away, than it is to actually dig up tons and tons of pipes.”

Thames Water, which has the worst record on leaks, was on Monday criticised for its “slow” response to a burst water main in Islington, north London. Just days before the company had urged people to cut down their water use and said it may be forced to bring in a hosepipe ban if the dry weather continued.

Four people had to be rescued and about 50 properties were damaged after a 36-inch water main burst, creating two sinkholes in the street.

Thames Water said: “We’re sorry to customers experiencing lower pressure than normal or no water this morning due to a burst pipe. Our engineers were quickly on the scene and have stopped the flow of water, which is now draining away.”

The Lib Dems have called om the Government to ban new bonuses for water company executives until leaks are fixed. England’s water and sewage company bosses have awarded themselves almost £27 million in bonuses over the past two years .

The industry has been given a target to cut leaks by 50 per cent by 2050. A quarter of water companies missed their most recent target on leaks, according to Ofwat.

‘Bonuses linked to performance’

Water UK, the industry body, said: “The bonuses of all water company executives are already linked to performance, and reflect customer and environmental outcomes. That includes performance on leakage, where we are now seeing the lowest ever volume of leaks on record – with further steep reductions planned each year this decade.

“Leakage rates in the UK compare favourably with our European counterparts, with a better record than Ireland or Italy and comparable performance to France.

“As well as action on leakage, we strongly support the investment needed to increase storage. We have proposed and are progressing £14 billion of new investment to deliver 18 projects that include reservoirs and extensive schemes to move water around the country – enough to supply 10 million people.”

Both candidates for the Tory leadership have vowed to crack down on the water industry over its record on leaks.

Rishi Sunak has said he would consider introducing compensation if a hosepipe ban is a direct consequence of the water companies’ failures.

Liz Truss has said she would “look at how best Ofwat could hold those water companies with the worst track record to account”.