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Bringers of Water

Bringers of WaterWith restrictions on using hosepipes in the North West due on Sunday, we had prepared an article to look at what was going on.

However, as many will now know, United Utilities has 'called off' the ban. So at present it will not be implemented.

Our article was about the background to the restrictions, and the role of the major players in this shambles.

And we also looked in some detail at what is, and what isn't allowed once a 'temporary restriction' comes into force.

We thought the plans to impose restrictions on domestic water use were generating far more criticism of United Utilities than we had expected, and way more than we had seen before in connection with hosepipe bans.

To us it felt as though there was a head of pent-up anger against the water company which the planned restrictions had unleashed.

Whether that situation is known to United Utilities, and connected with their decision to call off the ban, we don't know.

But we have decided to go ahead and publish the article which, (because we have looked much more widely at the water industry than a plain 'hosepipe ban') we think might still be of relevance and interest to our readers who appreciate our view of the details behind the headlines and tweets.

It will also act as a useful reference source on the legal position about what you can and cannot do once a ban is in place - in case the situation worsens again and a ban is re-introduced.

We begin with the breaking news that the proposed Ban has been lifted, before looking at the Legislative background to the ban and what you can and can't do once a ban is in effect.

Then we have a quick look at The four main players in this matter, before looking in more detail at each of them: United Utilities, then The Environment Agency, then OFWAT, and finally, the Government.

Next, we look at the likely Impact of a ban, before giving Our own View, first on The Bigger Picture, and then on the Temporary Use Ban provisions and some of their consequences.

Finally We offer our own solution which may not be to everyone's taste, and it's neither right or wrong, it's simply our view.


We preface our article with the formal announcement from the United Utilities website on 2 August 2018 that 'called off' the ban

"Hosepipe ban called off

We’re pleased to say that the hosepipe ban due to start on August 5 has been called off.

The slightly cooler temperatures and recent rainfall have eased the demand for water and together with our customers’ water saving efforts means we do not need to introduce any restrictions at this time.

Dr Martin Padley, our Water Services Director, said: “We would like to thank all of our customers who have helped in recent weeks by saving water wherever they can around the home and in the garden.

“Our leakage teams are working 24 hours a day to find and repair as many leaks as possible and we have been moving water around our network. We have also been making operational interventions such as installation of new pumping stations, pumping between reservoirs, bringing ground water sources into use and prioritising maintenance to help ensure supplies have not been interrupted during the prolonged hot spell.

“Given the improved position, helped by recent rainfall, we do not want to inconvenience customers unnecessarily at this time. However, the long range forecast from the Met Office is one of relatively dry weather into the autumn, so future restrictions are still a possibility if more rain doesn’t arrive.

“In the meantime, we are continuing to step up our own response and over the coming weeks you will see our teams out and about, bringing additional water supplies on line and fixing even more leaks. We are working closely with the Environment Agency in monitoring the water resources situation and we still urge our customers to please help us by using water wisely where they can.”

Thanks again for your support. We have lots of hints and tips on saving water and you can order free water saving gadgets too."

We were interested that the reasons given were partly rainfall and partly reduced demand.

We've previously heard it said that there would need to be at least a month of rain to restore reservoir capacity, and whilst we've had a few days of rain we really can't imagine that's the real reason for the ban being called off.

We suspect it's more to do with the cooler weather, reduced demand, voluntary measures to save water and, perhaps, the court of public opinion.

And if that's right, (and to be fair it is only our hunch) it looks to us as thought this was, (as the first message on the prospect of a ban we saw on the television said), more about United Utilities water treatment capacity than about the volume of water that was available to be treated.

On the BBC's local news programme North West Tonight, millions of viewers will have heard Stuart Flinders quizzing the nice lady from United Utilities about why the ban had been lifted now.   He asked:

"....OK, well three weeks ago according to your own figures, the reservoirs were 78% full.  Now, they're 56% full.  I mean, the suspicion of some of our viewers who've written in, is that you had a lot of bad publicity a couple of weeks ago when it was announced that two days before the ban was supposed to come in, you were going to pay your shareholders a hundred and eighty million pounds, and now you're trying to rectify that by.... deflecting from that by lifting the ban.  Is that the case?"

United Utilities on North West TonightThe nice lady from United Utilities replied:

"No. I don't think that's fair. You know, we have to take a judgement on this day by day, and of course the announcement gives people time to represent if there shouldn't be, .... the ban shouldn't apply to them. But of course, we have to look at this day by day, which we do do. We assess our reservoir levels and the good news is that we're in  a position now, because of all the steps we've been taking behind the scenes, to be able to lift it, because we've always said that imposing enforced restrictions was the very last thing we wanted to do, we don't think we need to do that at this time, that's why we've decided to call it off for now."

In the South East - which is traditionally drier than the North West, and on the same day that United Utilities called off their ban, Thames Water was still urging customers to save water as temperatures were set to soar beyond 30C again this weekend, pushing up demand.

Andrew Tucker, water efficiency manager at Thames Water, told the Independent on 2 August:

"There is plenty of water to go around but the sheer volume of water being used all at the same time across our 20,000km of pipes means it’s a challenge for us to produce it quick enough to meet demand."

And if, as we suspect, that's the real case in the North West as well, we are curious whether there was ever a proper legislative case to introduce the Temporary Use Ban,  as we will now explain


The basic legislation for what used to be known as 'hosepipe bans' was Section 76 of the Water Industry Act 1991, but the wording in this Act has been now substituted by the more detailed Section 36 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010,

And then by the even more detailed regulations set out in Statutory Instrument 2010 No. 2231 called 'The Water Use (Temporary Bans) Order 2010'

Those two links will provide our readers with authoritative chapter and verse on what is allowed (and not)

The changed legislation has subtly redefined what had previously been a 'temporary ban on hosepipes' and is now a "Temporary ban on use"

Whilst most people probably won't spot it, (because the new description still chiefly excludes the use of water drawn through a hosepipe or similar apparatus), BUT the new wording can also prohibit filling or maintaining a domestic swimming or paddling pool and filling or maintaining an ornamental fountain from ANY means except handheld containers.

That means no turning the tap in to fill these features directly from fixed or permanent plumbing either.

That's a first as far as we know, and speculatively, we worry about the change in the wording, because we think it could offer easier scope to extend the future prohibition of water use in other normal domestic fixed plumbing - perhaps at set times for example.

We might be worrying unnecessarily about this, and it is only our speculation, so we'll move on to look more closely at garden watering.

In summary, the combined position for gardens is

If a 'water undertaker' (in our case United Utilities) 'is experiencing, or may experience, a serious shortage of water for distribution' it can prohibit one or more specified uses of the water it supplies.

But there are limits. The 2010 Act says

'Only the following uses of water may be prohibited -

  1. watering a garden using a hosepipe;
  2. cleaning a private motor-vehicle using a hosepipe;
  3. watering plants on domestic or other non-commercial premises using a hosepipe;
  4. cleaning a private leisure boat using a hosepipe;
  5. filling or maintaining a domestic swimming or paddling pool;
  6. drawing water, using a hosepipe, for domestic recreational use;
  7. filling or maintaining a domestic pond using a hosepipe;
  8. filling or maintaining an ornamental fountain;
  9. cleaning walls, or windows, of domestic premises using a hosepipe;
  10. cleaning paths or patios using a hosepipe;
  11. cleaning other artificial outdoor surfaces using a hosepipe.'

There are some 'Discretionary Universal Exceptions' that are common to all water companies. They apply to:

  1. Blue badge holders: If you have severe mobility problems AND are the holder of a current Blue Badge as issued by your local authority, then it is usual for United Utilities to allow an exception in respect of the following prohibitions:
    • Watering a garden attached to domestic premises, including an allotment
    • Watering plants on domestic premises using a hosepipe
    • Cleaning a private motor vehicle using a hosepipe
    • Filling or maintaining a domestic pond using a hosepipe
    • Cleaning walls or windows of domestic premises using a hosepipe
    • Cleaning paths or patios using a hosepipe
    • Cleaning other artificial outdoor surfaces using a hosepipe.
  1. Customers using an approved drip or trickle irrigation system fitted with a PRV and timer systems. [We think that's a Pressure Reducing Valve]
  2. Commercial customers that use hosepipes as part of their business for some Temporary Use Ban categories, e.g. hand car washing, window cleaning, and graffiti removal

It is also possible that, by order, the Minister may add or remove items from the a to k list above. And separately, each local water company can decide whether certain activities are exempt from the Temporary Use Ban. We've not heard either in this instance.

The Regulations then further define each of the above headings, but we'll focus here on what a garden is (or is not).    In addition to those descriptions above.....

'A garden' also includes any of the following -

  1. a park;
  2. gardens open to the public;
  3. a lawn;
  4. a grass verge;
  5. an area of grass used for sport or recreation;
  6. an allotment garden, as defined in section 22(1) of the Allotments Act 1922(3);
  7. any area of an allotment used for non-commercial purposes;
    any other green space.

But 'a garden' does not include -

  1. agricultural land, as defined in section 109(1) of the Agriculture Act 1947(4);
  2. other land used in the course of a business for the purposes of growing, for sale or commercial use, any crops, fruit, vegetables or other plants;
  3. land used for the purposes of a National Plant Collection;
  4. a temporary garden or flower display; or
  5. plants (including plant organs, seeds, crops and trees) which are in an outdoor pot or in the ground, under cover.

'Using a hosepipe' is defined to also include the following:

  • drawing relevant water through a hosepipe from a container and applying it for the purpose;
  • filling or partly filling a container with relevant water by means of a hosepipe and applying it for the purpose.

A person who contravenes a prohibition is guilty of an offence, and is liable on summary conviction to a fine.

Section 6 of the 2010 Act also caught our eye.

It says that a water undertaker who issues a prohibition must make arrangements for a reasonable reduction of charges which are made in respect of prohibited uses (including arrangements for repayment or credit where charges are paid in advance).

But before everyone gets excited about a refund, (and although we haven't gone into this), we would not be surprised to find it has minimum periods before it kicks in and so on.

Also, and on a slightly different tack, we recall seeing what for us was the first public United Utilities comment on the matter.

It was the nice Lady on the television who said there might have to be restrictions even though was enough water in the reservoirs.

At that time, she said that United Utilities were not short of water, but they didn't have the treatment capacity to provide as much water as people were wanting.

To our mind, that explanation didn't seem to exactly fit within the 'temporary ban on use' requirements of the Act - which says that for the Act to apply, there must be '...a serious shortage of water for distribution...' (i.e. it seemed to us the nice UU lady had said there was no shortage of water for distribution, only a shortage of treatment capacity).

So we were not sure whether the legislation actually ALLOWED United Utilities to impose a ban on the basis of insufficient treatment capacity - but that's one for the lawyers to haggle over.

Our research subsequently discovered there is no formal definition of '...a serious shortage of water for distribution...' in any of the legislation, but United Utilities believes that there is no explicit link between this term and the definition of a drought.

Be that as it may, the original argument from UU soon changed to there being a shortage of water (rather than a shortage of treatment capacity), and a few days later, the television showed pictures of almost dried-up lakes and so on.

Another little-noticed provision of the 2010 Act is Section 44.

This is called 'Social tariffs' and allows the Water Company to 'include provision designed to reduce charges for individuals who would have difficulty paying in full'.

It also requires the Minister to issue guidance on this practice, including the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether one group of customers should subsidise another.

In effect, adopting this provision creates a hidden subsidy that is paid by consumers who can pay their bills, to those who cannot.

We're not impressed with this approach - not because we think some people don't need help - but simply because we believe any benefit or subsidy that is paid ought to be clear, separate and explicit. It should not be hidden within a broader charge.

That said, we don't know if UU has implemented this provision or even whether the Minister has issued guidance.

We do know that United Utilities Water Resources Management Plan says:

"Actions to improve the environment or minimise the frequency of water use restrictions can be very costly and it is important to customers that these activities do not increase water bills unnecessarily. This is particularly important in a region like North West England where incomes are often well below the national average and affordability is a real issue."

We note from this that United Utilities appear to automatically assume that the additional cost would fall on customers (rather than on shareholders by way of reduced dividend payments for example).


Historically, the system that was devised to allow water to be run or operated by a private company (rather than the public utility it had previously been) came about from a 'privatisation' process.

Some people believe the Government improperly claimed *ownership* of these assets when really, their tenure of them should have been closer to that of a trustee - holding them in trust for the public.

But in order to sell them, the Government of the day asserted ownership and 'privatised' the infrastructure by selling it to whoever made them the best offer.

In doing so, those assets were removed from public ownership and became vested in the purchaser. And the purchaser owned them - just as any business might own its own premises.

But the big difference with other businesses was that these privatised utilities were often (and are most definitely, in the case of water and mostly for sewage, are)  a monopoly 'business'.

They had no real competition.

Unless we buy and store tankered-in water, we cannot choose from whom we get our water supply. It comes from the monopoly business who bought the public assets - United Utilities.

But because the monopoly purchasers were providing an essential service with these assets (like water and sewage services), the Government created a regulatory regime who would have powers over them and - at least in theory - would make sure they didn't abuse their monopoly position.

Discounting us (the public), the North West has four main players in this matter.

1). UNITED UTILITIES is the water company formed after/from the former Fylde Water Board - and originally known as North West Water, but is now known as United Utilities. They own the infrastructure - water mains, pipes sewers, treatment works and so on - that provides the service we pay for, i.e. to have water delivered to us, and waste water taken away.

There are two 'regulators' for the water companies.

2). THE ENVIRONMENT AGENCY regulates their impact on and interaction with, the environment, and

3). OFWAT (The Water Services Regulation Authority) is 'the economic regulator of the water sector' which is said to involve:

  • protecting the interests of consumers,
  • promoting effective competition,
  • making sure that water companies properly carry out their statutory functions.
  • they also ensure that water companies can properly fund their statutory functions whilst securing reasonable returns on their capital.
  • OFWAT also has responsibility for securing the long-term resilience of the companies’ water supply and wastewater systems;
  • to secure that they take steps to enable them, in the long term, to meet the need for water supplies and wastewater services

4). GOVERNMENT. The final player is the Government - in the form of The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Currently Michael Gove MP).

We'll look at each of these players in turn in more detail.


To be honest, we've very little good to say about this organisation.

In our opinion, they're the worst water and sewage outfit in the country.

We're in good company. Last year, the water regulator handed the company an £8 million "underperformance" penalty.

Almost everywhere except the North West has managed to deliver proper bathing water improvements without having to resort to fiddling the figures by using the so called 'Step Change' get-out-of-jail-free provisions that allow you to cheat on the real results without being prosecuted.

Frankly, it was a disgrace for all concerned.

66.6% of all the 'Step Change' derogations in the whole of England were in the North West - where United Utilities is the water company.

The fiddling of the figures in the North West - and especially on the Fylde coast - is on such a monumental scale that people have difficulty believing this is really what's going on.

Yes, we accept that United Utilities probably had a bigger problem than most other places to start with, but a bigger problem simply means that more work was needed to fix it, and they failed to do that work.

We showed in 'The Great Fylde Bathing Water Con' in 2015 that they had worked behind the scenes with their environmental regulator, (and with the tacit acceptance of Government), when they pretended that works they were doing in respect of sewage improvements in places like Preston or Skippool justified them disregarding (literally) whole years of bathing water test results at Fleetwood and elsewhere. (And even in some of the years they did count, they discounted some of the worst results).

Fleetwood Bathing Water should have had all 80 test results counted over the four years that tests had been taken. Had that been done, the beach would have failed, and swimming and paddling would have had to be prohibited.

Instead, using the so called 'Step Change' derogations, only 18 of the 80 samples from Fleetwood were counted.

The removal of the other 62 (bad) test results enabled them to declare an official classification of 'Excellent' for Fleetwood's badly polluted bathing water.

Yes, really!

We agree they have put a lot of money into improvements, but it's nowhere near enough to solve the problem.

Together with others, they created smokescreen diversions at the 'Turning Tides' Conference resulting in initiatives such as the Love Your Beach scheme, and they have pedalled distractive stories about cows and dogs and even seagulls being responsible for the bathing water pollution, whilst they abjectly failed to adequately deal with combined sewers that regularly flow into our rivers and the sea.

You only need to look at one example of these (and there are many more) - the appalling happenings at Park View Playing Fields in Lytham, where there is a massive underground sewage store that is intended to act as a temporary reservoir in times of heavy rain when the sewers and treatment facilities cannot cope with the volume.

And you don't have to take our word for what's going on here. An official report to Fylde's Environment Health and Housing Committee in November 2016 said

'Ballam Road pumping station has a large storage tank under Park View playing fields to take pressure off the system during heavy rainfall events. United Utilities have a permit/licence from the Environment Agency to discharge storm water into Liggard Brook from the Ballam Road storage tank when storm water levels exceed their pumping and storm water detention tank capacity.'

Except here, (so as not to frighten the horses), Fylde's staff refer to it 'storm water' when it is actually the output of the combined sewers that serve most houses built in Lytham (and across the whole of the North West) before about the late 1950s or early 1960s.

After that date, it became a requirement to have two separate pipes to take waste water away, one for sewage and (what is known as) 'grey' water (baths, showers etc), and a separate one to transport the rainwater from your roof and your hard-surfaced garden areas.

But the vast majority of houses built before this date only had one pipe leaving their property, and all the 'waste water' - toilets flushes, baths and showers, washing up and clothes washing water flowed alongside and mingled with the rainwater (when it rained) in a single (what used to be called 'sewer pipe' and is now called a) 'Combined Sewer'

But when that enormous tank of sewage at Park View Road Playing Field gets full, and there is still a flow in the pipe-work leading to it,  they simply let it out, and vast quantities of untreated combined sewage and rainwater flow or are pumped from the tank into the Liggard Brook at anything up to 500 litres per second. (Yes really!)

In real money, that's almost 400,000 gallons an hour of sewage and water flowing into the Liggard whenever there is an 'overflow'. No wonder almost nothing lives in it and it's the colour it is.

We have had sight of some figures. On 3 December 2015, there was a 21 hour overflow. By our counting that's anywhere up to EIGHT AND A HALF MILLION GALLONS of combined sewage and rainwater into the Liggard. On 5th December there was another of 22 hours. Another of 21 hours on 14th December, and we could go on with a very long list.

United Utilities response to this was not apologetic. When two local Lytham councillors (Cllrs Roger Lloyd and Mark Bamforth) drew attention to it, United Utilities came out fighting. They were dismissive, telling the Gazette...

"We have a licence from the Environment Agency to discharge water into Liggard Brook when storm water levels exceed what our treatment processes can cope with, or we can store temporarily.... the discharges into Liggard brook were mostly rainwater which presents no risk to the environment whatsoever...."

We suspect that's technically true. They do have permission (we'll get to that later) And probably more than 50% of what goes into the Liggard is rainwater that has fallen on roads and driveways and roofs and so on, in times of heavy rainfall.

But that rainwater is within the combined sewers which collects BOTH rainwater and household sewage.

That's why they're called 'combined sewers'

What United Utilities Seem to be arguing here is that it's OK for human excrement to float along the Liggard brook as long an there's plenty of water mixed with it.

Frankly, that's a disgrace.

And what United Utilities statement also showed is that this useless outfit do not, even now, have sufficient treatment capacity, nor do they have sufficient storage capacity, to prevent this disaster from happening again and again.

Having permission to cause pollution with raw untreated sewage does not make it right to do so.

It simply means that the Environment Agency is equally useless for issuing United Utilities its 'permit to pollute' and the wider regulatory regime has failed to REQUIRE United Utilities to provide either sufficient additional Treatment Works, or to build sufficient storage capacity to hold what it cannot treat.

That's why we have no confidence in the regulatory bodies regarding their arrangements for sewage and waste water disposal.

We're also critical that they are doing nowhere near enough on flood control. The flooding we've seen our TV screens is as unacceptable as it is heartbreaking for those affected.

We thought it telling that, speaking to the Telegraph newspaper in 2016 a United Utilities spokesman said

"... asset impairments and other charges following "unprecedented flooding incidents" in the north west of England in December would erode operating profits."

Happily, not by too much though, because the next paragraphs said:

'...the water company's underlying operating profit - which is the group's preferred measure of performance and excludes one-off costs - would be in line with expectations, albeit lower than last year thanks to higher investment and new pricing controls set by the UK's utilities regulator.'

'We were particularly pleased to learn that customers continue to rate us highly on waste water services, notwithstanding the unprecedented flooding experienced in the North West during December last year...'

We're not clear whether that asserted 'high' rating was before or after United Utilities' unsatisfactory maintenance and repair of its underground water storage facility at Barnacre resulted in structural defects that allowed cryptosporidium into the drinking water system and resulted in something like 300,000 customers having to boil water for around four weeks - and for which UU was prosecuted.

The Chief inspector of Drinking Water Marcus Rink said of that matter:

"This prosecution was brought about because the company failed to follow nationally recognised and published good practice in assessing the risks of returning stored water to critical stages within the treatment works and to take appropriate and rapid action to protect consumers when the contamination was known.”


And now we come to their latest fiasco.

Having resorted to fiddling the figures to hide appalling bathing water results, and having failed to make adequate provision for sewage treatment, and having failed to prevent widespread flooding in the North West, and having failed to maintain a basic clean water supply to the North West, they now say that haven't got enough water to meet our needs, so they devised a plan to restrict our use of it.

United Utilities said they expected their 'temporary use ban' on hosepipes to save around 22 million gallons a day.

But leaking pipes in United Utilities network lose more than 4 times this amount every day - (around 96 million gallons)

This state of affairs has led to widespread criticism that there is money available to fix the leaks, but instead of doing that, United Utilities is choosing to put it in the pockets of their shareholders.

They have a Water Resources Management Plan published in 2015 which includes the following:

"Unlike other areas of the country, we aim to implement water use restrictions and drought permits, on average, once in 20 years; ban non-essential use only once in 35 years; and consider it unacceptable to plan for rota cuts or standpipes even in the most severe droughts."

United Utilities last ban was in 2010 and the impending ban would have been the third in the company's 23-year history.

So much for once every 20 years then.....

Now, as far as we understand it, they don't own the water.

They own or undertake abstraction from water-holding sources (lakes or reservoirs), and they also own the processing and delivery infrastructure for it.

So when there is not enough supply to meet demand, whose fault is it?

United Utilities seem to want us to believe that it's our own fault for, in effect, using too much water.

Yea, Right.

United Utilities saying it's our fault because we're using too much water is the same as Tesco saying it's our fault they've not enough bread to go around because we're all eating too much of it.

But the big difference between Tesco and United Utilities is that Tesco have competitors - and we can go to them if Tesco don't provide what we want.

United Utilities is a monopoly business with no competition.

There simply cannot be a shortage of water in the North West when the rest of the country is not also imposing a ban.

The North West is the wettest part of England.

What we believe to be the problem is a shortage of capacity to store and deliver enough water to meet our needs.

And the corollary of that must be that over the years, United Utilities has failed to invest in enough storage, and enough water treatment capability to meet the demand from the growing population of the North West.

They're keen enough to tell us how much they have invested, and indeed we applaud what they have done.

But - self evidently - it's nowhere near enough.

UU themselves admit this. Their full page adverts say

'We're treating and pumping water to you as fast as we can, but demand is so high..... we're appealing to everyone to be neighbourly and save water, which will also go some way to making sure there is enough water to go round for everyone'

The phrasing here pulls on the old 'public service' heartstrings in all of us, but we think that's misleading.

Water stopped being a public service when the Government sold the assets to a private company.

We no longer share a communal water storage and delivery service, we are now the paying customers of a private business who's aim is to generate profit and pay shareholder dividends (Including a reported dividend of about £29,000 to its Chief Executive today (Friday 3 August 2018), just two days before the temporary use ban was to come into force)

But what their full page adverts don't do, for example, is encourage us to associate the 7 million customers of United Utilities with the £645 million profit that the company made last year, or the reported £180,000,000 that's being paid to shareholders today at what must have been a very embarrassing time - just two days before the hosepipe ban (or temporary use ban as they prefer to call it) was due to come into effect on Sunday 5th August.

That's £180,000,000 of dividend payment which is not going to be re-invested in their inadequate infrastructure.

Rather than provide for our future need, United Utilities has just sought three permissions from DEFRA to temporarily extract water from Ullswater, Windermere and Ennerdale Water.

Ennerdale is likely to be a particular problem for them because at its north west end, it feeds the river Ehen which is a special area of conservation. UU is currently requesting to increase its present drawdown limit from 1.7 metres to 2.5 metres below the crest of the dam, for a period of three months.

The Windermere one requests permission to abstract water from Lake Windermere when the flow of the River Leven is lower than permitted under its current abstraction licence. If granted, this will result in a reduction of the amount of water needed to be abstracted from Haweswater and Thirlmere Reservoirs and help safeguard longer-term supplies for public use.

The Ulswater one would allow the company to continue to abstract water from Ullswater when the flow in the River Eamont is lower than permitted under its current abstraction licence. This permit aims to increase storage in Haweswater and Thirlmere Reservoir.

Speaking of the Windermere proposal, Tim Farron MP told The (formerly Northwest Evening) Mail that the plan to take up to half a metre from the lake would make it impossible for most of the boats to operate on the lake, adding

"The steamers and boats that run on Windermere are vital to our local tourism economy and the businesses who operate them. United Utilities need to realise the serious consequences of taking this action. Every other option must be exhausted because it’s clear that removing half a metre of water from Windermere is absolutely a non-starter."

In response, United Utilities told the Mail:

"Applying for permits is not a decision we take lightly, and we work closely with the Environment Agency to ensure that water supplies are protected for customers and the environment, and to balance this with the needs of other users.

Our application for Windermere will not mean taking water out of the lake itself or drawing the water level down. Instead, it would allow us to take a bit more water from the river before it reaches the lake, but only if we need to."

But in a later update, they said:

"We have committed to abstracting from Windermere and Ullswater when Haweswater [reaches?] a certain level as outlined in the drought plan. The maximum we can take from Ullswater is 300 Ml per day and Windermere around 200 Ml per day.

The drought permit at Ullswater and Windermere is to allow a reduction in the Hands of Flow at the River Eamont and Leven. The maximum benefit we would see based on past drought period would be around 24 M l/day from Windermere and 51 M l/day from Ullswater."

We don't know if that ties into the claim that they would take half a metre of water from Windermere.

But what is clear is that United Utilities, unlike other water companies, have not invested sufficiently to provide the necessary infrastructure to meet demand for water (or for other aspects of their work we have highlighted here). They now seek to - parasitically - take water from other users and, at the same time, prevent their customers from watering their gardens

Is there any wonder why we say that, in our opinion, they're the worst water and sewage outfit in the country.

If we could get what we need from a competitor-supplier it wouldn't be as bad, but we can't, and their equally useless so-called 'Regulators' are failing to make them behave as though proper competition did exist.


Their 'regulatory role' in respect of water companies is only a small part of their overall function

And, although it appears to be separate, the Environment Agency is, in fact, an arms length public body sponsored by the Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Inescapably, because it is sponsored by DEFRA, and is funded via their budget, it is actually part of the Government. (Although the EA do now raise money as income - from issuing licences and permits etc  - such as abstraction licences, waste registrations, fishing and boating licences). They also sell data they collect and hold.

This is another outfit that we regard as being not fit for purpose in its present form.

As we showed in 'The Great Fylde Bathing Water Con' in 2015, they were complicit with United Utilities to avoid them being prosecuted for polluting the bathing waters.

They have also failed to enforce sufficient action on the pollution of watercourses such as Liggard Brook.

But in our view, and arguably even worse than a simple failure on this matter, they have actually granted United Utilities a license to pollute the Liggard Brook (technically issued under their 'Environmental Permitting' regulations).

And it's not just Liggard Brook. From the experience we have had, it seems that wherever United Utilities is failing to put sufficient measures in place to prevent untreated sewage reaching our water, the Environment Agency is willing to grant a permit for it to carry on.

To us, that's in the same league as the indulgences sold by the Catholic Church as a money-raising scheme in the Middle Ages.

Granting absolution in advance of a transgression is obviously wrong in principle - unless you regard it as a money-raising scheme of course.

So, having researched the bathing waters matter in detail, we can come to no other conclusion that we have no faith in the will of the Environment Agency to take a sufficiently robust stance, and to take sufficiently robust action against United Utilities for polluting our beaches, our rivers and watercourses.

On Flooding and drainage we feel likewise. To our mind the Environment Agency has 'lost the plot.'

Their purpose ought to be to seek continuous improvement in the UK's Drainage system and to ensure there is enough of it to prevent floods.

The UK's Drainage system is there to do what it says on the tin.

But these days, the EA seems to think that not spending money on basic drainage maintenance, and protecting wild creatures has a higher priority.

We reproduce the comments and pictures below from a North West NFU Publication called 'Stemming the Flow'

'As the Environment Agency downscales and withdraws maintenance of the region’s rivers and drainage systems, it’s been left to the NFU (alongside its members and partners) to prevent productive land from being flooded....."

"Year on year reductions in the level and quality of maintenance carried out on the region’s rivers and drainage systems by the Environment Agency (EA) is an issue for all farmers in the North West region.'

These pictures  show what drainage ditches should be like, and what they are like without proper maintenance. As readers will see, only one works properly as a drain.

Inadequate maintenanceThere are five specific North West areas (including Lytham) where the EA announced a complete withdrawal from the maintenance of ditches and channels - and in several of them (notably in West Lancashire area), they have also announced they would no longer operate the pumping stations.

More locally to us, although the EA did NOT announced it would withdraw from operating the pumping station at East Lytham, (and it has even funded capital works to upgrade the penstocks), it HAS acknowledged that due to cuts there are not sufficient funds to adequately carry out all the maintenance within the system. Speaking specifically about Lytham, the NFU's 'Stemming the Flow' article continued.....

'The EA is therefore looking to the landowners to fund and carry out this work themselves. There are two main channels within the system, one runs Properly maintainedpredominantly through farmland, the other through Lytham, and it does not take too much guess work to establish where the EA currently focuses its attention. The current management of the system is putting a lot of pressure on agricultural drainage, so in order to manage this in the future, everything needs to be done now in order to equal out the flow of water.'

And for farmers - who've been told they now have to look after the ditches and channels on their land, it gets worse. Most have to apply to the EA to be ALLOWED to undertake drainage ditch maintenance.

And when the EA puts its favourite wildlife-protecting hat on, this can, and does, make proper drainage maintenance so complicated that landowners often simply give up.

So we say the EA has lost the plot on drainage.

Now to the current problem - the Environment Agency's involvement in water supply.

It's the Environment Agency (again) who regulate what water can be taken from lakes and rivers.

The quote below - from United Utilities Water Resources Management Plan's overall summary page says:

'Ensuring sustainable water abstraction to protect the environment

In most cases, and for most of the time, in North West England, there is adequate water available for abstraction. However, we are working with the Environment Agency to protect environmentally sensitive species and habitats – particularly in West Cumbria. It is an area of great environmental importance, all the natural lakes and rivers contain rare species and sensitive habitats, protected by law, including England’s only viable population of the internationally protected freshwater mussel. The actions that are needed to help protect this species will result in a significant reduction in water available for supply in this area."

Once again we see what appears to be the Environment Agency's devotion to wildlife protection being accorded greater importance than human need.

When farmers are unable to feed and water their livestock - and when even gardeners and allotment holders can't use a hosepipe to recycle water through the land back into those water sources - it must be the case that something is systemically wrong.

To our mind the EA should not seek to apply wildlife protection regimes to designated water supplies, they should apply them to areas - like the nature reserve system on land - where water areas are designated for wildlife, not for human consumption.

If that results in their being insufficient water for public consumption, then we argue that (preferably) United Utilities or (if necessary) the Government, must build more storage for it


The 'Water Services Regulation Authority' styles itself 'the economic regulator of the water sector' and was established in 1989 when the water and sewerage industry was privatised (in England and Wales).

Like the Environment Agency, it is also a Government department, but in this case it is not under Ministerial control and it raises its budget not from general taxation but from licence fees charged to the water companies. They are, however, accountable to Parliament for the money they spend.

We probably don't know as much about this outfit as we should, but if as they say, their role is

  • to protect the interests of consumers;
  • to promote effective competition;
  • to make sure that water companies properly carry out their statutory functions;
  • to achieve the right balance between water companies' profits and service delivery;
  • to secure the long-term resilience of the companies’ water supply and wastewater systems;
  • and to ensure that, in the long term, water companies meet the need for water supplies and wastewater services

We have to say we're not impressed with their performance so far - in all their areas of responsibility, at least so far as United Utilities is concerned.

They do at least recognise there is a problem.

Their very recent publication 'Putting the Sector in Balance: position statement on PR19 business plans' notes

'While standards are rising overall and there are examples of water companies providing great service, there continues to be widespread concern that companies do not always operate or behave in the way expected of them.

Alongside high profile service failures, concerns have been raised about high dividend payments undermining the long term capacity of companies to perform; levels of executive pay being out of step with what has been delivered for customers, and complicated and potentially risky financial structures which not only call financial resilience into question but suggest that owners are more interested in financial structure than delivering a great service.

This caused us to look again at whether we were doing all that is appropriate, within our remit, to incentivise and encourage companies to deliver the best outcomes for customers.'

Furthermore, the Chairman's forward to the 2017/18 annual accounts says

"However, this year the water sector has also been subject to deep scrutiny and significant challenge. Customers, the Government and Ofwat want to see a greater sense of fairness in the way many perceive water companies to operate.

In particular, we have tackled the concerns that corporate behaviours by some companies have compromised public trust. It shows there is no room for complacency.'


But we'd go further. A lot further. An awful lot further.

We think OFWAT would be justified to do so as well.

As Stuart Fegan, from the GMB, told the Aberdeen Evening news.

'Unfortunately, past behaviour over the last 29 years suggests that private water companies are more than happy to accept fines from Ofwat rather than make the necessary investment in our water infrastructure to stop leaks.

The bosses of England’s privatised water companies must sit up and take note of the public reaction to hose pipe bans while they make huge profits, pay their chief executives a fortune and have failed to sufficiently invest in our water infrastructure as promised.”

Back in the North West, it is clear to us that United Utilities' own aim - to impose water restrictions on average once every 20 years, (and this Sunday would have been the third time in 23 years that they have done so), means they are not meeting their own tests, let alone standards that ought to set for them by a regulator.

Those who bid for, and were awarded, the water and wastewater assets that used to be in public ownership knew the condition of them at the time, and they knew of the plans for cleaning up the bathing waters (The original Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC) came into force in December 1975, and water was not privatised until 1989).

United Utilities (or their forbears North West Water and NORWEB who merged to form UU) must surely have estimated the costs of asset maintenance, investment in new infrastructure, and meeting regulatory requirements when they put forward their bids.

We therefore think it is only reasonable that they ought to be PROPERLY held to account for all their failures, and be made to deliver a proper service that accords to the list of responsibilities that OFWAT say is their role to regulate.

That leads us to conclude that, of the two main regulators, OFWAT may be the lesser of two evils in that it recognises the public do not think it is doing its job properly, and it is taking some steps to address that perception. But they are only 'baby steps' when what at least some of the water companies need is a fundamental shaking out of their complacency, incompetence and profiteering.

So we're not expecting OFWAT to get onto our list of really effective organisations anytime soon.


The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (currently Michael Gove MP) has responsibility for the Environment Agency as a whole and is directly responsible for the appointment of the chairman and the Environment Agency Board.

He is also responsible for overall policy on the environment; the setting of objectives for the Agency's functions; the approval of its budget and payment of Government grant to the Agency for its activities in England; and for the approval of its regulatory and charging regimes.

Readers might recognise that this convoluted chain of command makes it appear that the Government isn't responsible when something goes wrong (even thought it absolutely *is* responsible).

He does not control OFWAT, nor, so far as we can tell, does he appoint OFWAT's Chairman or Board (It's not clear to us who does) but at least OFWAT is accountable to Parliament because the *are* a Government department - which means that Parliament is responsible for them.

To our mind, it follows that because

  • the Government sold the North West Water assets to a private company
  • the government conceived and devised the regulatory regime for water
  • the Government appoints the folk that control one of the regulatory bodies
  • Parliament is responsible for the other regulatory body

then it must be that Westminster is ultimately responsible, and what was the impending hosepipe ban is of their own making - both in law and in practice.

Ever keen for a sharp headline, Environment Secretary of State Michael Gove called the water company Chief Executives in this week to explain why they have failed to meet leakage targets as the country struggled to cope with the dry summer.

Whilst leakage is probably the most publicly obvious Achilles' heel of the water companies, the real problems he should be addressing are much, much wider.

Mr Gove (who, it has to be said, has finely tuned antennae to detect problems in the making - and has had a really busy week this week) also invited farmers leaders to meet him.

It was reported they told him that farmers needed more flexibility to take water from rivers, or to have increased access to the public supply water when there is spare capacity in the system.

After the meeting it was widely reported he had told farmers that the government would do whatever it takes to maintain food supplies, and that they would make sure farmers had what they needed in order to provide the country with high-quality food and ensure the survival of their businesses.

So he is at least seen to be in touch with the problem and perhaps even empathetic to struggling farmers, but we don't believe his department is doing anything like enough to sort out our problems with water supply, sewage arrangements, and most especially, flooding.


Domestically, many keen gardeners and allotment growers in the North West would be hard hit by a water use ban if the dry weather continues.

A BBC News Report of 17th July looked into the matter in the North West and noted that 'Allotment owners have criticised the ban, claiming they should be excluded.'

We agree.

But United Utilities told the BBC that allotment owners growing produce for their own consumption are to be banned from using hosepipes, while those who grow fruit and vegetables commercially are exempt..

The BBC report continued....

"Andy Percival, of the Blackpool Federation of Allotments Associations, said the restrictions would have a "massive impact... putting all their hard work at risk".

He said: "A lot of produce will fail or be destroyed… and there is no way of saving crops.

"A lot of retired people, young families or those on low incomes use allotments to supplement their incomes and eat fresh fruit and veg."

Commercially, farmers and growers are also in trouble.

Last time this happened (in 2012) the price of fresh fruit and vegetables rose because of lower yields and shortages.

Tourism was also under threat. Public paddling pools and other water features ceased operating. Restrictions were placed on some canals which affected the main boating season from April to October, when many tourism companies expect to do most of their business.

The risk and actuality of fires also increased as grassland dried up.

In some cases fish had to be moved from ponds that were drying up, and the Environment Agency said that pollution, such as accidental slurry spills from farms or industrial leaks, was having a far greater impact on rivers because of the reduced water flow.

This time (in 2018) only the North West's water company (United Utilities) was planning to impose restrictions at present. But the dry weather is resulting in wider problems across the country.

It's likely that livestock - especially dairy cows - will be sent to slaughter early as, with less grass available, the cost of feeding them runs out of control.

If that happens on a large scale, then in the short term we might expect to see higher milk prices and perhaps, lower meat prices. But if animal production costs have increased as feed costs go up because of shortages, and animal weights have gone down (with premature slaughtering), then meat costs are more likely to rise.

It's already being reported that it is becoming hard to find an abattoir with capacity to handle the numbers because the volume of work is considerably higher than they would expect at this time of year.

Lambs too are being sent for slaughter prematurely as farms run out of grass for them.

As well as meat and milk producers, growers of salad crops, fruit orchards and vegetable growers, have all said harvests and yields are being severely affected.

Chief amongst these are likely to be shortages of peas (which are cropping now) and lettuce (which become unsaleable when they bolt and run to seed in hot weather).

The BBC reported the NFU's President Minette Batters - speaking about the meeting with Michael Gove and saying:

"Today's summit was a wake-up call to government and policy makers about the importance of British food production and the critical need to manage the volatility that comes with it.

She welcomed Mr Gove's pledge to support the sector.

At the meeting she had sought more flexibility for farmers who want to take water from rivers, or have increased access to the public supply water when there is spare capacity in the system.

The Environment Agency, the government body which oversees water use, said farmers would be allowed some short-term flexibility within their water abstraction licences.

"We must also balance farmers' needs with those of wildlife and other water users so we will only allow these arrangements where we are satisfied there won't be any adverse effects on the environment," said Paul Hickey, the EA's head of water resources.'


 The Bigger Picture

Since privatisation of water assets, and with the growth of demand from a burgeoning population, the North West has suffered very badly regarding water services.

Without radical and fundamental measures being taken (unlikely at present), we can't see it being fixed at all.

In the EA's  'State Of The Environment: Water Resources' report of May 2018, the Chairman's forward said

"Since the mid-eighteenth century, England’s winter rainfall has increased and summer rainfall has decreased. Climate change, population growth and land use change mean river flows and groundwater levels may decrease in future summers."

If that trajectory continues, it mans means we're heading toward routinely more flooding in winter and routinely more water shortages in summer.

Clearly, there is one solution for both these problems, and that's to build some vast - if necessary some underground - water storage facilities (using the same sort of thinking as the Romans would have done!)

We need to take the winter flooding excesses into storage to reduce the risk of floodwater inundation, and we should hold them in declared non-environmental reservoirs which will hold the 'surplus' winter water for use in the summer.

And yes, this probably means digging vast new lakes or building new stores or dams, but that is the obvious solution to the water supply problem, and it should have been implemented well before now.

 The Temporary Use Ban

We were distinctly unimpressed with this measure.

And that's not only because at more or less the same time as the ban was due, millions of extra gallons of the Fylde's drinking water is planned to be sold to Cuadrilla to be mixed with sand, wetting agents and biocide and consumed by the fracking process they are about to undertake - before half of it returns to the surface with (albeit minor) radiation picked up underground which makes the recovery treatment for the water hugely more complicated and costly. The other half a million gallons stays deep underground and no-one quite knows what will happen to it.

We've digressed yet again.... Back to the plot....

Clearly, the Temporary Use Ban was not going to stop keen gardeners watering their plants, it would just have made it more difficult for them to do so. And with each canful carried from tap to plants, their anger with a useless water company would grow, and their satisfaction with a system that makes them do it will go down another notch.

And in this we declare a personal interest.

Our garden will be in this category.   counterbalance towers has quite rare - and in some cases quite valuable - plants assembled from all over the world. We will not put plants such as those under threat of existence by failing to water them. So we expected to be watering a similar amount with watering cans.

We already pay a high price for water. In our adult lifetime it has gone from being about 1s and 8d per 1,000 gallons with an annual bill of around £40 (payable to the Fylde Water Board just behind the Tower) to the present charge of over £800 a year.

We accept that increases to improve the sewage system were necessary, and that paying for our part of them is necessary. But there are many other water related cost increases that we do not support.

We also have an issue with the concept that watering a garden is wasteful, because we simply don't agree. The only 'waste' involved is the cost of treating the water to make it drinkable, and that's a small part of the overall cost of water storage and transporting to our homes.

And if the Government or the Water Company doesn't want to bear the cost of water treatment out of its operating account or shareholder dividend, we'd be quite happy to see them separate the supply of water arriving at houses into drinkable and non-drinkable water - just as they separated sewers from rainwater drains from the 1950s onward.

It's not otherwise 'wasted' because watering the garden ends up on one of three places

  • It is either transpired directly to air from plant leaves and via evaporation from the soil surface where it contributes to the formation of rain-bearing clouds that fall back to earth as the water droplets condense when hot air cools as it rises over elevated landforms and re-deposits itself into water catchment areas.
  • Alternatively it is absorbed by the plant until that either dies or sheds its leaves. All of this lands back to the earth where the water moves as below.
  • Any excess water flows through the soil until it is recycled when it reaches drains and eventually watercourses or aquifers.

The only 'waste' that occurs from watering gardens is where the (relatively small number of garden) plants are eaten, and even then it is not exactly 'wasted' because it is recycled (hopefully) via sewage treatment works and re-joins the rivers and the sea, whence once more, it evaporates to form rain clouds and the water cycle continues.

So whilst we can see it might be considered a waste of the cost of treating the water to purify it for drinking, we can't agree that watering a garden is a waste of water itself.


Yes, but we're not sure how many folk will agree with it

The problem needs to be taken on by its ultimate owner, the Government.

We would direct the Environment Agency to fully impose the non-pollution regulations which would, in turn, require offending water companies such as United Utilities to fix the problem with bathing waters (they are still working on this, but progress is far, far, too slow).

It would also require the building of many more sewage treatment works or storage tanks so that literally NO sewage ends up flowing untreated into our watercourses and the sea.

We would also direct them to rebalance their priorities in favour of flood prevention over wildlife conservation.

And we would require them to adopt a policy that supported the creation of more drinking-water lakes and reservoirs that were exempt from wildlife regulations.

In a post-Brexit world, that ought to be easier.

At the same time, we would have Parliament remind OFWAT of its responsibilities, and explain that if they were unable to fundamentally rebalance the relationship in favour of customers they would be disbanded as an organisation and either a new organisation formed to do what they had been failing to do, or the work taken back directly into Government's hands.

We would especially have them focus on the long term need for additional storage capacity to be provided to store winter rainfall for use in summer.

It's quite possible that combined, these measures could cause some water companies to become insolvent or otherwise not willing to continue to operate. That, in our book would be nothing more than collateral damage, and if any wished to hand back the assets they bought from the public to the public, we wouldn't see that as a bad thing.

In our view, the privatisation of water services (in all its forms) has, for the most part, not been a success. And, like the railways, we could imagine there being significant electoral support for its being re-nationalised.

In fact, we're quite surprised that Mr Corbyn's team haven't been advocating exactly this sort of thing with water as they are with the railways.

Dated:  2 August 2018



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