/ Home & Energy

Raise a stink over water companies

Flood in a house

If I buy food from a shop and it makes me sick, I can sue the shop. If raw sewage seeps into my home and makes my family sick, do I have the same right to sue the owner of the leaking pipes? I don’t.

And anyway, why are thousands of homes a year in 21st century Britain flooded with sewage?

One of our members contacted us after a catalogue of pathetic responses from Thames Water when her basement was full of its sewage. Repeated calls to Thames weren’t returned. Tankers to pump out the sewage were promised and failed to arrive. Her three children became ill, neighbours complained of the smell and the electricity continually cut out, setting off the burglar alarm at all hours.

After we intervened, Thames did a survey and found the problem was a collapsed drain caused by a blockage of fat. We asked Thames about compensation in such cases – it said it’s responsible for damages only if flooding is a result of its negligence. It eventually refunded our member’s annual sewerage bill, under the regulator’s ‘Guaranteed Standards Saving Scheme’. It did say its communication ‘was perhaps not as good as it could have been’. This is among the greatest understatements I’ve seen.

Stop wasting my time

There are two issues. First, I was under the impression that we paid water companies to take away waste. To me, if waste returns, the company hasn’t kept its side of the bargain. Second, they enjoy unusually generous leeway when it comes to compensating customers.

When the industry was privatised in England and Wales, more than 20 years ago, their liability was limited so they didn’t have to worry too much about such things. One reason seems to be that the old pipe networks could play up, but the industry also argues that it can’t control the weather or what you put down your drain.

This is understandable to an extent – but to be fair to customers, firms need to respond quickly when your home is full of sewage.

Water isn’t the only industry to get special protection after privatisation. We believe rail firms have unfair small print in their national conditions of carriage. Leeway for privatised industries isn’t an excuse to treat customers unfairly. We’re watching to ensure they do right by you.


When water companies were privatised they were aware of the state of the water supply and sewerage systems they were taking over. They have a responsibility to provide clean water and remove waste water, and in the time they have been operating the system they should have been putting right unsuitable plant and pipes – yet we still have masses of fresh water leaking away apparently, and sub-standard sewers. They have extracted profits without putting in the full investment necessary – this seems to me where the main problem lies.
We cannot expect the drains to cope with unusual circumstances – exceptional heavy rain for example – but we should expect there to be provision for dealing rapidly with the aftermath; apart from the devastation to the property it is a public health issue.
If you fine these companies for failure, it will simply come out of your future bills and the consumers don’t benefit. You can’t change supplier, and I wouldn’t want them back as public utilities (the Government has an abysmal record in managing enterprises).
Like all large organisations that fail us we seem powerless to take any action. Perhaps one method is to make substantial automatic penalty payments to all consumers in an area deprived of supply or subjected to flooding – when a properly-functioning or maintained system would have prevented it.


Perhaps there should be some agreement as to what can be put down the sink and the loo?

At one time the water companies didn’t agree to waste disposal units yet these would seem to be a very good solution to the problem of food waste particularly in flats – and they ARE used in lots of homes. Do any waste disposal unit makers tell you that your water company doesn’t agree with your use of them?

Have a look at feminine sanitary products and baby products and wipes and their claims to be “flushable”. The water companies won’t agree and neither will the householders who having used these flushable products have had a problem. Only the problem often ends up as somebody else’s.

Are there guidelines? What do we want/need?


If you’re interested in Thames Water’s full comment about the case talked about by Peter, here it is:

“We’re really sorry if Ms X feels she was let down by our customer service. This was a complex job because of the difficulties we had in locating the blockage due to the fact the manhole cover had been built over. While we did our best to resolve this problem as quickly as we could, our communication was perhaps not as good as it could have been and we must improve on that.”


Isn’t there currently a Thames Water consultation?

Shouldn’t we be telling them what we expect them to provide us with?

I think we should expect there to be agreement on what can and can’t go down the drain instead of companies making things and suggesting we can flush them when our water and drainage company doesn’t agree! Surely they should be putting money into what could be a resource for them as well as the money that they now have to put into renovating the drains. In the past I believe a lot of money was taken out rather than being used to improve and maintain the systems.

We don’t want them lecturing us about using less water when we can see leaking water from broken pipes in the street not being fixed by them and their contractors for days and days! They need to take more responsibility.

MJR says:
2 July 2013

Ok, you had difficulties locating the manhole cover because it was built over. So let’s forget sewage for now and look at supply pipes. Take for example farm worker Mr B living in a rural village where his water meter is at the PSC over a mile from his property and his supply pipe (that he is responsible for) runs beneath the local landowner’s fields. Then one day he receives his water bill for more than £2,000 and complains to the water company – who investigates and discovers a leak on his supply pipe but it’s under the landowner’s stable block. So who’s going to pay for the repair? The landowner (I don’t think so) the water company (but it’s not their supply pipe) so it’s down to Mr B (who can’t possibly afford such an excavation and restoration. So why is this despicable scam in place when the gas companies are responsible for gas supply pipes and electricity and media companies for cables? Because supply pipes are constructed from lead and replacing them would mean a big dip in the shareholders profits which is why the Government excluded the water companies from supply pipe responsibility. But has the Government not spared a thought for the nation’s unfortunate mothers bottle-feeding their babies with lead without even knowing it. And breast-feeding isn’t an option because these poor mothers are filling their own bloodstream with lead every time they fill the kettle.


Lead piping is not a significant hazard unless the water is soft. Anyone who is concerned about lead in their water can ask for their water company to carry out tests.

A great deal of care is taken to ensure that our water is fit to drink, and governments past and present ensure that this is done.

MJR says:
2 July 2013

So you say


Try contacting your water supply company and you might find that I am correct.