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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Nest Estate Water Woes

Leak follows leak, old asbestos pipes, the system is broken - neither Yorkshire Water nor Calderdale will take responsibility. Mick Piggott recounts the story

Last year, the Hebden Bridge Times reported (15th March 2012) on the huge leak at our property on Nest Estate, Mytholmroyd from the water ring main which serves the whole estate. There have been many serious leaks around the estate from this water main before and since; closing off the water supply to fix leaks has become a regular occurrence.

The most recent leak at another property was only repaired a few days ago; and there is another, slower, long-ongoing leak which has yet to receive attention.

On the morning of Monday 26th August I awoke to find a new geyser of water bubbling out of the ground in our back yard. This time, Yorkshire Water did arrange a sub-contractor to attend and stop the leak on the same day - last year, it took six days of water pouring out and down the road before the company accepted their responsibility to repair the leak. On Monday, yet another section of pipe was replaced in our garden.

According to the sub-contractors, the problem is that the whole asbestos ring-main is corroded and splitting. They have stated that the only permanent solution to this ongoing problem is to replace the whole ring-main with new piping.

Yorkshire Water's answer to this is that each and every property-owner is individually liable to maintain, repair or replace the section of pipe running under their own property. Remember, this is the public, shared pipe they are referring to, not the connections to the individual properties.

Approximately half of these properties, on what was once a council estate, are now privately owned and the other half are owned by Pennine Housing.

So the story goes, the ring-main which supplies the estate, running under all the individual gardens, was installed by the council when the estate was built after World War 2; the water company (pre-Yorkshire Water) only connected the system to the public mains pipe on the outside of the estate. Yorkshire Water never took on responsibility for the estate's ring-main, and when the council houses were sold off, the council washed its hands of it altogether. Yorkshire Water was privatised under the same 1980s government (remember them?) that sold off the council houses.

Yorkshire Water was floated on the stock exchange and is now foreign-owned by a company registered in the Cayman Islands, which is where Yorkshire Water (and presumably some if not all of the other water companies) export their billions in profits to, thus avoiding/evading paying any tax (surprise!), after payment of hundreds of millions in dividends to the shareholders … etc. So apparently, there's little chance of getting 'our' privatised water company on board to help solve our problem … or is there?

Logically, you would think that the obvious authority to take overall responsibility for maintaining a safe and efficient water supply should be Yorkshire Water itself. Whereas initially, it would have been the council, the council escaped this responsibility when the council houses were sold, in some cases being taken over by the housing association, and in others, by individual, private owners. However, if it is true that there is indeed a fiscal liability on each house owner for the section of pipe which runs through their property, you might imagine that the logical thing to do would be for Yorkshire Water to organise the replacement of the whole system, because it is one system: the company supplies the 'product', and uses the pipes to supply their product. You would also think that as it is their area of special expertise, they would be the natural entity to take the job on. They are still called 'Yorkshire Water', for goodness sake … But no …

Apparently there have been discussions in the past between Yorkshire Water and Pennine Housing about this problem, and such negotiations had been ongoing for some time, but no agreement has been reached. It is rumoured, here on the estate, that the two organisations were no longer even talking to each other until recently. We understand that the water company has the legal power to sort the whole problem out, and then to require the individual owners to make a financial contribution towards the cost - including Pennine Housing, as well as the private owners. For some reason, on Nest Estate, Yorkshire Water has been reluctant to accept this responsibility.

Does it really need stating that the desperately needed replacement of the water supply pipes should be carried out as one integrated job and not piecemeal, as now, patching up leaks again and again? The original pipes were/are asbestos, presumably lined; the new pipes are iron, so that, engineering-wise, one would expect difficulties matching them up - and that the joins would have an inbuilt weakness. Surely, a utility that is clearly a public utility, a 'natural monopoly' if you like, should be regarded and managed as an integrated whole? And is that not so, more than with any other utility, with water supply?

And one further issue arises regarding the pipe materials. I don't think too much needs to be said about working with decaying asbestos. The current practice, when replacing sections of pipe, is to leave the old asbestos in the hole and to bury it. This is probably the safest thing to do; but again, we on the estate would argue that an integrated approach is needed, rather than cutting out a length of asbestos each time a section is repaired.

The extremely inefficient way this issue is being handled now is not only utterly failing to provide a long-term solution; it must worsen the overall instability of the supply pipe, and increase the certainty of future breakdowns.

There are, understandably, some residents who take the short-term view, that 'I have no problem, why should I share the cost?' to which the only answer can be, 'The odds that you will suffer an outbreak in the future increase with time and every patch-up job that is carried out. And is it not an inconvenience to lose water supply for hours at a time every time the water has to be turned off for repairs?'

I can easily understand worries about the cost. A figure of £2,000 per household has been mooted by Yorkshire Water, which is a hell of a lot of money to find if, for instance, you are a state pensioner existing on a retirement ('old-age') pension, like the writer, with a very small current bank balance. A levy added to our annual water bills springs to mind. And what of the moral obligation of the council, who installed the original system and thus bequeathed the subsequent owners with the problems and the debt? One wonders at the thinking behind this, that the old water company, pre-Yorkshire Water, was not required to undertake the supply of water to the Nest Estate houses. However, that is now history, of course.

We would like to see all the relevant authorities take this on board, and work together towards a sensible solution to the problem. We are hoping that our local councillors and MP will take up the case, and do the job they were elected for: to look after the interests and needs of the voters. We would not have thought this is too much to ask.

Mick Piggott, Mytholmroyd