Thames Water bosses face fury of residents forced out by Finsbury Park flood
Company says ‘sorry’ as it is accused of ‘putting profit before everything else’
17 January, 2020 — By Calum Fraser
Residents and councillors grilled Thames Water officials at the Parkwood Primary School meeting
THAMES Water was accused of “putting profit before everything else”, with such a poor record on pipe bursts and customer care that it should be in “special measures”, in a public meeting attended by furious residents whose homes were destroyed in the Finsbury Park flood last year.
Neighbours, who have been scattered across the capital after the deluge in October left them homeless, filed into Parkwood Primary School hall on Tuesday to hear from Thames Water bosses.
Steve Spencer and Kelly Macfarlane, chief operating officer and managing director of customer care at the utility firm, repeatedly apologised as they were grilled by residents, councillors and representatives from the regulator Ofwat.
Hackney councillor Sharon Patrick, who has chaired several meetings with Thames Water after three major floods in three years, said she was “sick” of hearing the same excuses.
Last year’s flood in Finsbury Park
Islington has also been hit by two other floods from burst mains pipes in the past three years, one of which devastated countless antiques and priceless artefacts in the historic Camden Passage area of Angel in 2016. Several residents’ homes were also affected.
Cllr Patrick said: “It does seem to me that profit comes before everything else for Thames Water as a corporate body.
“If the council was causing this amount of grief and distress to people’s lives and we had a pot here to pay for distress, the other side of the council would be saying, ‘you have got to sort this’. This isn’t good enough.
“It doesn’t seem like Thames is on the ball enough to stop floods happening and pay enough attention to the lives of your customers.
“People are out of their homes for a year.
“You have to buck your ideas up.”
John Russell, head of strategy and environment at Ofwat, the watchdog set up in the 1980s after water utilities were privatised by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, said he had “significant concerns” as Thames was an “outlier” among companies across the UK.
“In 2018 an Ofwat investigation found that Thames breached two of its legal obligations for leakage management – this led to a record penalty of £120million,” he added.
Hackney councillor Penny Wrout said: “Essentially what you have told us is that Thames Water was already in special measures before this incident.
“Focusing on the response to the Finsbury Park flood, I have been shocked by their actions.”
On the day of the flood, which started at about 8am, it took Thames several hours to turn off the burst main because of a faulty valve they were not aware of.
This meant valves further up the network of pipes had to be switched off and thousands of households across Islington and Hackney lost their water supply.
Cllr Wrout added: “It took Thames two hours to even try to sort out the faulty valve. Two hours, what were you doing? Then, by the evening, the water company has not even delivered bottled water. It’s just shocking.
“I wonder, on that business of immediate critical response, what lessons are Ofwat learning from this, and are you going to use it as an example of the worst-case practice?
“Is this going to be a benchmark for how not to do it?”
Compensation was a recurring concern for residents and councillors with 177 homes damaged by flood water on the day.
A distress and inconvenience payment is being considered but the final sum cannot be calculated until residents are back in their homes and the full extent of their loss is understood.
Ms Macfarlane said: “The scale of temporary accommodation needed was unprecedented. We homed around 90 families at any one point.”
One-off compensation payments of £300 for those who stayed in their homes, and £5,000 for those who were forced out, were paid to households.
This sparked fury from several families who stayed behind as they said they felt they were being punished for wanting to remain in their home, despite significant damage.
Ms Macfarlane added: “I am very sorry for that.
“Going forward, we need to meet very quickly the representatives of the community and agree on the best approach for doing this.”
Mr Spencer said: “I really do want to offer my sincere apologies on behalf of Thames for what happened.
“Clearly this is one of the more significant incidents that we have ever had and I am sure it has thrown your lives upside down in terms of the impact it has had. I want to formally apologise.
“This is not something we are going to walk away from in any way. We are going to continue to provide support until everybody is back in their properties and all the issues are resolved.”
He added that Thames Water is hoping to reach its target for leakage when their financial report is published in early spring.
Deluge as old pipe ‘split like a banana’
EXPERTS continue to be baffled after a “massive” 36-inch trunk mains “split like a banana” in Finsbury Park forcing drain water up through the road and flooding scores of homes.
Steve Spencer, Thames Water’s chief operating officer, told residents and councillors at a public meeting in Parkwood Primary School on Tuesday that he still did not know what caused the “unprecedented” deluge, four months on.
“The actual pipe split in two,” Mr Spencer said. “That in itself is a very unusual mechanism for a pipe to burst. We have not seen a mechanism like that before.”
The pipe was laid in 1892 but it was still in good condition. A repair job was done about 50 years ago on a joint connecting the mains to other pipes. This may have created a “weak point” with traffic weighing down on it over the years making it more unstable. But that is just a theory and experts could not come up with a definitive reason. There may have been a fault when the pipe was manufactured in 1892.
A trunk main moves bulk water around London. The one that burst in Finsbury Park moves water from the West Reservoir in Hackney, under Parkwood primary, onto Seven Sisters Road and down past the old Holloway Prison site off Camden Road to another reservoir called Maiden Lane.
Thames Water manages thousands of miles of pipes that criss-cross London and the Thames Valley area. A lot of the pipes are more than 100 years old.
Hackney councillor Anthony McMahon asked if there was going to be an “accelerated programme” of repairs and replacement of old pipes in the wake of the Finsbury Park flood.
Mr Spencer said this was “unlikely” as replacing a trunk main like the one that burst would mean closing Seven Sisters Road for about a year to dig up the concrete.
Cllr McMahon said: “So that means we can expect more of the same in terms of burst pipes in the future.”