Thames Water has let Londoners down. It needs to do better

A burst water main in Herne Hill, south London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

A Labour member of the London Assembly on the city’s water provider.

As expected, the recent deluge of snow brought huge disruption to our capital, with trains delayed, flights cancelled and traffic piling up. Whilst the transport network recovered, one of the consequences of the arctic weather was the cut-off of water supply to thousands of homes in across London, after pipes expanded and burst in the thaw. Frustratingly, though the scale of the problem was alarming, it was anything but unexpected.

A number of schools had to close and approximately 20,000 homes and businesses in London were left without supply for days on end, forcing thousands of residents to rely on bottled water to get by. There were also testimonies of scenes in supermarket with shelves and fridges stripped naked of all water bottles, and reports of smaller shop owners allegedly looking to cynically profit from the disarray by charging exorbitant prices. As a consequence, many exasperated Londoners had to travel miles to reach emergency water collection points – only to find that supplies had run out there too.

The blame for the protracted outage lies squarely with Thames Water. Londoners who were affected rightly criticised the company for its lack of communication, slow responses and their failure to provide accurate updates on when water is likely to be restored. 

It has been welcome to see that Thames Water has now made a commitment to directly contact everyone who suffered from the disruption, and offer up to £150 of compensation. Nonetheless, its handling of the situation has been poor across the board.

Over the last few months, there have been a number of incidents of pipes bursting in London. In just one week in January, 500 engineers were reportedly called out to repair more than 1,000 leaks. Considering this, the recent events have merely been the tip of the iceberg.  Last year, Thames Water was fined £8.6m by the water industry regulator Ofwat for failing to live up to its commitments to reduce leakage. Shockingly, in 2016-2017, the company lost approximately 677m litres.

Under pressure from the regulator and the London Assembly, the company was forced to admit that its response times to bursts has been unacceptable, and it has since vowed to launch a comprehensive review of its strategy. However, its response to recent bursts suggests it is dragging its feet and struggling to meetits targets. The speed and volume of the water in the pipes under our streets can fill an Olympic swimming pool in 40 minutes. As we’ve seen, the consequential damage can be significant, so it is absolutely crucial that Thames Water takes more urgent action to improve response times.

The company’s preventative strategy has not been up to scratch. As Labour’s London Assembly Spokesperson for the Environment, I have made the case exhaustively that Thames Water should urgently put in place more robust measures to prevent any further large-scale incidents from occurring in the first place. This has been echoed by Ofwat, who have accused water companies of having “fallen well short on their forward planning”. 

We know that Thames Water have the significant problem on its hands that thousands of kilometers of London’s pipes date from the Victorian era, with the cast iron mains unable to cope with the pressures of freezing temperatures. Alongside my colleagues on the London Assembly Environment Committee, I have been assured by the company’s senior officials that there is a plan to replace the antiquated pipes. However, whilst Thames Water is not known for its quick fixes, the officials informed the Assembly that the replacement process could take up to 40 years at an estimated cost of of £20bn.

It is essential that Thames Water now properly invest its resources in upgrading their pipe networks. Thames Water recently published a draft 80 year plan in which it has pledged to reduce leakage by a minimum of 15 per cent by 2025. However, in January’s London Assembly Environment Committee meeting, the officials conceded that they were far behind realistically achieving this, and indeed were behind their previous, lower, leakage reduction target.

With the vast amount of disruption that has already taken place this year to homes, businesses and schools caused by flooding and loss of water supply, it is abundantly clear that Thames Water must quickly step-up to confront the many challenges that it faces – and stop leaving Londoners high and dry.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.