East Garston’s meeting with Thames Water on 7 December 2023

On Thursday 7 December, East Garston Village Hall hosted a meeting convened by East Garston Parish Council (EGPC) and the East Garston Flood and Pollution Forum (EGFPF) to ask questions of Thames Water’s (TW’s) recent performance in the valley. Representatives from TW included Sustainability Director Richard Aylard and Regional Network Manager Karen Nelson. Local ward member Clive Hooker and his Lambourn neighbour Howard Woollaston were also present, as were Vicki Rieunier and Chris Harris from Lambourn Parish Council.

Despite the cold and wet weather, there was a strong turnout of about 70 people. For my part, the walk round to the Hall was enlivened by stepping up to my ankle in a full pothole. Having my left shoe full of cold water certainly kept the H20 theme in my mind during the meeting: not that there was ever any doubt as to why we were all there.

The meeting

Expertly chaired by EGPG’s Sue Tulloch, the event was bookended by two impressive and very different statements. The first, from EGFPF’s Martyn Wright, was a forensic appraisal of TW’s failures and unfulfilled commitments over the last couple of decades. The second, from ward member Clive Hooker, was a barnstorming speech which produced a round of applause.

In between, we heard an assessment of TW’s recent works from Karen Nelson and a Q&A session with her and Richard Aylard. Martyn Wright later described this interrogation as being “practical, searching and objective. It would have been easy,” he pointed out, “for it to have degenerated into a ranting session (we have reason enough) but that would have been counterproductive.”

The number of people who showed up, from such a small village, was particularly impressive: and important. “We’d like to thank everyone who came along, ” Sue Tulloch said. “The strong attendance clearly demonstrated to TW the strength of feeling in the village and the effect it has on so many parishioners.” Clive Hooker added that this demonstrated “the serious concerns of local residents” about the “distressing and totally unacceptable situation of sewage discharging into homes, gardens and streets.”

Martyn Wright stressed that the good turnout “gives huge encouragement to those of us on the front line to continue to take on the challenge.” This certainly involves a lot of work. Organisations like the EGFPF need to study a good deal of material dealing not only with the science but also the financial and regulatory backdrop. You can tell how badly a utility company is doing by how many pressure groups there are monitoring its performance. In the TW area, there are hundreds of them.

“At least TW had the courage to come and face the East Garston residents who have had to put up with so much including raw sewage in the river and in people’s gardens,” Howard Woollaston commented. “They clearly have a monumental task to make up for years of neglect to the system. I’m pleased to see a commitment to £20bn of expenditure across their network and sincerely hope that the problems seen throughout the Lambourn Valley will be remedied shortly ”

Fortunately, it seems that funding for the next tranche of work in East Garston is in place: how much will be available in the future, and where it will come from, remain to be seen.

For a full summary of the event, you can do no better than email martynwright345@btinternet.com and ask to be added to the EGFPF newsletter list. I won’t try to compete with his excellent account. Instead, here are my thoughts on four of the things we got from the meeting.

• Two kinds of work

The work TW is doing can be divided into two groups. It’s important to keep these separate. The first are remedial – basically, fixing the pipes (which, given the amount of groundwater infiltration, are inadequate). All the other stuff – such as discharges into the river, filtration units and tankers – are mitigations. The more of the second there are, the more badly TW is performing on the first.

As Martyn Wright observed, “let’s be brutally frank. Installing a filtration unit is an admission of failure.” Such measures are necessary to deal with emergencies but don’t solve the basic problem. They can likened to mopping up the blood but not stitching up the wound.

A related issue is that palliative measures have now been used for so long and so regularly that discharges, filters and tankers have become the norm. The first thing we therefore need to do is recognise that every instance of these is proof that something more fundamental hand’t happened and complain accordingly.

• A window of opportunity

Investigative work can’t be done when the groundwater levels are low (you can’t see the cracks in the pipes) nor when they’re high (the pipes are full). A time of falling levels is the best. This should be happening about now but instead water levels are very high and the system is full. Due to global warming and other reasons the rises and falls are becoming harder to predict. The good news, however, is that once the problems are identified, the repairs themselves can be done during a more generous time period.

While this is a limiting factor on the timings of repairs, it should not be seen as a get out of jail free card for TW. Here local pressure groups and councils again have a role to play. When levels fall, they’ll know about it. TW needs to be aware that, when this happens, local organisations will be on the phone saying “you promised repairs will be done when the water levels started falling. That’s happening – where are you?”

• Part of the local machinery

As the East Garston experience shows, it’s important that local pressure groups work with local parish or town councils to effect change. As well as ensuring a wider base of local support, it also plugs the group into the machinery of local government. Parishes and towns are in regular contact with ward members, WBC officers and the local MP. Presentations to the local council get minuted, so making the matter more official. Most PCs or TCs produce newsletters in which the group’s messages can be mentioned. A meeting, such as this one, convened by the local council which represents local residents is also an expression of local will.

Such meetings, of course, have to be well-organised and well-chaired; which this one was. As Martyn Wright put it, “TW’s representatives have gone away knowing they are dealing with a mature, intelligent and concerned group of determined residents who are not going to give up.”

• Joined-up action

One of the reasons TW has often offered for its problems is the large number of private drains that carry sewage into the main network over which it has no control. There’s been an element of shoulder-shrugging – “well, there you are. It’s an administrative muddle we didn’t create and we can’t do anything about it.”

It seems, however, that there is. Martyn Wright recently shared with me evidence he’d assembled which seems to prove that, if they work together, TW and WBC do have the powers to ensure all the sewers can be improved. Parish and town councils whose residents are affected by the problems need to make sure that they are used.

Next steps

Martyn Wright suggested that “we came away with as much as we could have hoped for, given the situation we are already in with such high levels of groundwater. There is no escaping the fact that TW has missed the window that it had to do the repair work that had been identified before the levels rose.”  The hope is that the promises that were made can be adhered to.

Assurances were given by Richard Aylard that funding had been secured and that the work would be done as soon as practicable were, Martyn Wright felt, “as close to the cast-iron guarantee we demanded as we are likely to get.” Always, however, there was the qualification of “as soon as the groundwater levels allowed.” As mentioned above, local groups here and elsewhere which keep an eye on these need to ensure that TW is ready to start work as soon as circumstances permit, before the staff or the funding are re-allocated elsewhere.

The mixture of ambitious aspirations and the realities of funding pressures and seasonal limitations was, and has been, a recurring feature of TW’s responses. “The good news from tonight,” Sue Tulloch said, “was that TW has identified the parts of the sewer which need repair and have secured funding to carry out the work. The bad news was that is now too late to carry out the repairs because of the high groundwater level.”

Clive Hooker welcomed that a filtration system in East Garson would be installed in the week commencing 11 December, though he correctly described this as “a sticking-plaster and short-term fix,” albeit one that should “make for an anxiety-free Christmas.” Sue Tulloch agreed, saying that it was “certainly preferable to the tankers until they are able to complete the repairs. The Parish Council will,” she added, “continue to monitor the situation,” as will the EGFPF.

Monitoring needs to happen. The filtration unit in Lambourn has broken down several times in the last week or so. If this happens here, the first sign will be overflows from the manholes in the yard at Mabberley’s. From here, water will flow into the river, the manhole effectively acting as an unofficial relief valve which by-passes the pumping station (and, incidentally, also the ERM meter which monitors if discharges are taking place). This leads to the question of how long it would take for the tankers, which have now been stood down, to return to deal with the problem. This was raised at the meeting but not, Martyn Wright “answered to an extent which provided much confidence.”

This last point is, as mentioned previously, an important one. The Parish Council represents the village and was able to summon a decent chunk of its population and two ward members to its deliberations with TW. (Our MP, Laura Farris, would have been able to attend the November meeting that had to be called off but could not make this one, though did send a representative.)

Ultimately, pressure groups, parish or town councils and ward members have very limited powers to coerce large organisations into doing anything. If they act together, however, they do have the power to be at best a critical friend and at worse an incessant pain in the backside to TW. As Martyn Wright said, the meeting showed that “TW knows we are a serious and determined group of people to deal with and that we will not be fobbed off with mealy-mouthed platitudes.”

The points have been made, the statements presented, the questions asked and the promises made. TW, the ball now seems to be in your court. We await the results with interest.


Brian Quinn


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