Water, water (and sewage) everywhere…

It’s a well known fact that the sewerage and drainage networks in many parts of the country, particularly in the Upper Lambourn Valley, are inadequate leading to sewage overflowing out of toilets and out of manhole covers onto roads.

Increased development, lack of investment, financial constraints, seeming central-government indifference, a reluctance by OFWAT to sanction major remedial work and disputes between local councils, the water companies and the Environment Agency as to who is responsible for what have all contributed to the problem.

In the Lambourn Valley, and other areas with aquifers, another contribution to the problem is seasonal groundwater being forced into the sewer network through the cracks in the pipes, thus causing the whole system regularly to overflow.

A rather crude analogy might be a bath which is getting dangerously full of water. Although the amount of water coming out of the tap varies, you can’t turn the tap off altogether. Removing the plug doesn’t let the water out quickly enough as the pipes are partly blocked. Let’s further assume that you’ve been running the bath to wash some filthy and contaminated clothes, so the water in it is no longer clean. That’s not all. To make it worse, from time to time a high-pressure shower is also turned on by some seasonal force you cannot control. Finally, imagine this has been going on, intermittently but at fairly predictable intervals, for at least 20 years and in general has got worse each time.

The obvious solution is to get the pipe unblocked and perhaps put in a new, bigger one. For the reasons described above, this is hampered by your being unable to establish whether you, your landlord, the council or the water company is responsible. Nor is anyone certain where the pipe goes, who owns is or what’s causing the blockage. Above all, there’s a general disinclination to get to the bottom of the problem and an even stronger disinclination for anyone to pay for it. So, there you are. What happens next?

You have three choices.

  • First, as you’ve done so many times before, you could just let the water cascade onto the floor and mop it up as best you can. This will be interspersed with poking rods and pouring caustic soda down the plug hole to try to improve the flow. You may or not be able to claim on your insurance: indeed, as this has happened several times before, you may not even have been able to get insurance at all. You then have an irate and inconclusive four-way conversation with your landlord, the council and the water company in which each of you explains how the problem is the responsibility of the other three, but not them. You make your usual apologies to your housemates, stress that you did everything you could given the insuperable obstacles and assure them that the smell and damp will eventually go away. You then hope that the situation will eventually recover to the extent that what goes in is less than what is going out. After a while, and for a time, this may happen. You will then put the cloths, plungers, rods, caustic soda and all the other short-term fixes away and forget about the problem until it happens again, whereupon exactly the same sequence of events will be repeated. This broadly describes the default way in which the problem is currently handled (and certainly how its widely perceived).
  • Option number two is to ask your neighbour, whose pipes are in better shape than yours, if you can put the water down his plug hole. If he agrees, you’ll then have to get an army of people going from your house to his with buckets of dirty water. You’ll have to look sharp, though, as you must keep ahead of the rising water levels. You may therefore have to pay your helpers and buy extra buckets. After a while, you might wonder if it wouldn’t be cheaper to pay to have the problem fixed properly. No time for these reflections now, however – your current problem is that you need more buckets and more helpers, and quickly. The best these can hope to do is stabilise the situation, not cure it. If they stop for too long the bath will overflow and the whole exercise rendered pointless. This broadly describes the system of tankering the excess water away. Residents of the Lambourn Valley will not need reminding what these tankers looks like.
  • There is a third option. If you have no amenable neighbours, or not enough of them, you could rent a pump and, when no one’s looking, squirt as much of the water as possible into the river which conveniently runs through your garden. You’ve sort of got a kind of permission to do this in an emergency: and you convince yourself, and hope to convince the authorities should the need arise, that this is indeed an emergency, even though it’s happened many times before and will happen many times again. You’re also probably a bit elastic in your interpretation of how much water you deal with in this way and for how long. No matter that the water is polluted and contaminated: it’s out of your house, which is all that matters at present. The more often you do this, the more natural this solution it appears to be; and, so your logic runs, the less likely the authorities will be to clamp down on you. In any case, as others are increasingly often doing this all over the country, the risk of your being caught seems worth it, particularly given the immediate benefit of parking the problem for another season. This broadly describes the system of permitted discharges whereby foul water can, with the permission of the Environment Agency, be diverted into watercourses.

Put this way, it’s easy to see that none of these solutions offer anything approaching a long-term solution. If we want to be constantly having our houses flooded with dirty water, if we want regularly to be having hundreds of tankers going back and forth through the area or if we are quite happy with polluting our watercourses, the current arrangements are ideal. If, however, we disagree with even one of these statements then the only solution is to fix the pipes.

This would be a huge job, no doubt about it. To do this for all the troublesome parts of the country would, however, probably cost less than building a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham. In terms of political legacies, though, “I fixed the sewerage problem” it might not have quite the same gloss as “I built a shiny new railway.” That’s the trouble with flood water, sewage in particular: we think about it as little as possible (although when it causes a problem we can think about little else). To describe sewerage as a Cinderella service hardly comes close.

The issue needs a collective effort on a national scale. The best we can do is to let our MP, our local councils, our water companies and the EA know that we feel the situation is unacceptable. One ray of home is that a Private Member’s Bill (the ‘Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill’), the debate on which has been Covid-ed back to 15 January 2021, is seeking to limit the number of discharges which the EA can permit and to beef up the fines for breaches. If option three from the above list is removed that will make it a bit more likely that a long-term solution will be found.

I leave you with a final thought, suggested to me by Charlotte Hitchmough from Action for the River Kennet. Imagine that we were not talking about water, but oil or gas leaking out of or into pipes and contaminating houses, streets and watercourses. Would we then have waited decades for the problem to be fixed? Exactly. It’s only water, after all…

Brian Quinn


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