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IN THE the summer of 1995 a catastrophe struck West Yorkshire.
Quite simply, the county — with a population 2.2 million — ran out of water.
Yorkshire Water, the company which took over water supply in 1989 under Tory privatisation, gulped down huge profits while neglecting its supply network.
One-third of treated water supplies were gushing from leaking pipes.
It took just a few weeks of hot weather and low rainfall to drain the company’s Pennine reservoirs dry, while water gushed from the leaks.
Bradford was the worst-hit city. Its population of 300,000 depended on storage reservoirs which dried up.
Yorkshire Water installed stand-pipes in Bradford’s streets in preparation for the rationing of supplies if homes had to be cut off.
The company staged a publicity stunt, installing a stand-pipe in front of TV cameras in one street to show residents what to do if their supplies were cut off.
The stunt was a disaster. One elderly Bradford resident and water bill payer stormed from her council home and told the Yorkshire Water public relations officer where she would stick the stand-pipe if her water was cut off.
Then the company proposed “rota” cuts, in which people’s homes would have supplies for 24 hours, then 24 hours off.
Amazingly, Yorkshire Water said that the public was to blame for water shortages for “not understanding” the need to conserve water.
Then they appointed a new head of public relations on a salary of £70,000 a year, believing that she would solve their “image” problem. And,of course, it didn’t work.
The company’s attempt to blame its own customers for the crisis prompted Alice Mahon, the excellent Labour MP for Halifax at the time, to raise the issue in the House of Commons.
“People detest the way in which Yorkshire Water has conducted its business and the way in which it has blamed its customers for the current crisis,” Mahon said.
“Customers are lectured time and again, as if the present situation has nothing to do with the company.”
She told the Commons how the Tories had — at taxpayers’ expense — written off a £5 billion debt owed by the water industry when it was privatised, and how bills had increased at double the rate of inflation since privatisation. And still millions of gallons of water poured from leaking pipes.
As the crisis deepened in West Yorkshire, weekly meetings of the emergency services were held with Yorkshire Water bosses on how to deal with the looming catastrophe.
One document — a secret one — proposed the evacuation of the city of Bradford. That’s homes, businesses, hospitals, care homes, 300,000 people — the lot.
They proposed bringing in the army to prevent looting.
I obtained a copy of the document and exposed it — at the time I was a reporter on the Leeds-based Yorkshire Evening Post.
Had the evacuation plan been acted upon, it would have involved moving people on a scale far greater than the evacuation of people from London during the nazis’ aerial blitz of the capital in the second world war.
Eventually it rained, and the company was off the hook.
But such was the detrimental publicity that the company launched an “independent” public inquiry into the shambles, chaired by an eminent QC — hired by the company of course.
Each day of the three week inquiry, Yorkshire Water officials handed a batch of relevant documents to the 20 or so journalists who were reporting on the event in Leeds Town Hall.
That’s where they buried the document outlining plans to evacuate the city of Bradford, near the bottom of a pile of 50 or so other documents.
I found it, and shared its contents with the other journalists — well, with those who were members of my union, the National Union of Journalists, not the rest.
The outcome of the inquiry was that Yorkshire Water had to build a pipeline from the huge Kielder Dam in Northumberland to transfer water from that reservoir into the rivers of North Yorkshire which would carry supplies to York.
From there they could be pumped from the River Ouse across to West Yorkshire in times of need.
The chief executive of Yorkshire Water eventually resigned over the debacle, but not before he’d made an idiot of himself on TV showing customers how it was possible to have an all-over wash with just half a basin full of water.
He’d appeared at one of the company’s weekly media conferences and announced that he hadn’t had a bath or a shower for three weeks, prompting two journalists to leave their seats and move to other seats some distance from him.
It eventually emerged that he’d been nipping up to his mum’s home in the North East for a bath, which was a bit of an embarrassment.
All this took place in 1995. So why is it relevant now?
Because it’s all happening again.
Water supplies in England are “owned” by nine regional water companies. That’s right — the rain which falls from the clouds is actually the private property of the shareholders of the nine companies who make profits out of allowing us to drink it, cook with it, bathe in it, brush our teeth with it, and flush it down our toilets.
Now, it’s been a bit hot recently. United Utilities, the profit-hungry company which owns the water supplied to seven million people in North West England, is banning the use of hosepipes from August 5, because its reservoirs are running dry.
No matter that 25 per cent of its treated water supplies are lost through leaking pipes through lack of investment in the supply infrastructure in the region.
No matter that United Utilities chief executive Steve Mogford has received £12 million in pay, bonuses, pension credits and other benefits over the last five years for presiding over this shambles. His pay last year alone was £2.4m.
No matter also that United Utilities shareholders were handed £636m in dividends last year.
And no matter that the North West region of England has the highest rainfall of any region in Britain — but its reservoirs are running dry.
Because this is privatisation doing what it does — failing miserably, but still coining in the profits for having monopoly control over one of the essentials of life — water.
If Thatcher could have privatised the air she and her co-conspirators would have done it. They couldn’t. But they did privatise water.
The United Utilities ban on the use of hosepipes is enforceable by law. Breaking the ban carries a fine of up to £1,000.
There’s a campaign to put water supplies back under public ownership — remember the old Water Authorities, made up of elected councillors, running services responsibly, and for the public good, not private profit?
General union GMB, which has thousands of members in the water industry, has launched a Take Back the Tap campaign, calling for water to be returned to public ownership.
It’s a good, well-researched campaign. GMB has revealed that the bosses of the nine privatised water companies received £58m in salary, bonuses, pensions and other benefits over the past five years.
The union has also revealed the effects of the companies’ failure to invest in their leaking distribution systems.
The GMB lists the water lost by each company daily through leaking pipes. It’s in millions of litres — and an Olympic-sized swimming pool holds 2.5 million litres, just to give you an idea of the waste.
Yorkshire Water is the fourth-worst wastrel. According to GMB it loses 295.2 millions of litres a day. United Utilities (439.2 million litres) is up there in the top two behind outright winner Thames (677.2 million litres).
So let’s support Take Back the Tap, and get this essential service back into public hands.
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