Victorian infrastructure means more flooding for years to come in London


sinkhole on Lee High Road pic: Thames Water

Sinkhole on Lee High Road. Pic: Thames Water

London’s Victorian-era water pipe infrastructure would take almost two centuries for Thames Water to replace at its current rate of work, Eastlondonlines has found.

Thames Water is still repairing a water main that burst in Upper Street, Islington, flooding local residents’ basements and causing major disruption. The week before a water pipe operated by Thames Water also burst, flooding Lee High Road in Lewisham, causing thousands of nearby residents to be evacuated and a bus carrying French tourists to become stuck in a sinkhole.

Just yesterday, 350 people were evacuated from flooded homes and businesses after a 30-inch water pipe burst in Stoke Newington High Street, adding to Londoners’ pipe flooding misery.

Thames Water said they would be investing £4bn in network investment between 2015 and 2020 to: “Improve 881km of water mains, to reduce leakage by 59 million litres each day – the equivalent of nearly 24 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

Thames Water say on their website: “Over the past decade we have replaced over 1,600 miles of cast-iron Victorian water mains with tough new plastic pipes less prone to leaks and bursts.”

This means they are doing 50km less work per year, compared to the previous decade.

At this rate of work, it would take Thames Water almost 170 years to replace the Victorian-era network of cast-iron pipes that constitutes the London and Thames valley water supply network that they are responsible for, which includes ELL areas Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and the northern part of Croydon.

The coach during the flooding. Photo: Kerry Welsh

The coach during the flooding. Photo: Kerry Welsh

Thames Water say: “In London and some parts of the Thames Valley many pipes are made of cast-iron and have been in the ground for more than 150 years.” This means some of these pipes could end up being buried for over 300 years.

Lennie Goodman, an assessor for Oakleafe Claims who assesses the damage caused by ageing water pipes, said: “I would say that there’s at least a leak a week that they [Thames Water] react to in London.”

Speaking about the costs these can incur, he said: “It can be as low as a couple of thousand pounds, or as high as tens of millions of pounds”, adding: “The infrastructure is antiquated and well-beyond its useful working life, its been on borrowed time for many decades.”

This may be the tip of the iceberg, as Goodman points out: “What we see happening in the news and that we hear about is only what comes to the surface and affects day-to-day people, usually the leaks are underground and we’re not even aware they’re going on[…].”

In light of the fiasco of the past weeks’ burst pipes, ELL area residents could therefore face similar disasters for decades to come if Thames Water can’t expedite repairs to the system. This threatens to place a potential burden on the local economy.

Thames Water director Bob Collington said: “It has been an extremely difficult week and, having visited and spoken to a number of those impacted, I am personally devastated for those customers who have suffered flooding so close to Christmas. We are doing everything we can to help them and will make sure they are not left out of pocket for what has happened.”

Thames Water have defended their record on upgrading London’s ageing infrastructure, and say they have invested over £11bn to reduce leaks and bursts and improve service.

However the company’s 2016 turnover of £1.9bn means it may not even have the means to invest more than it claims to already have done. In March, its net debt amounted to £10.2bn, resulting in a gearing ratio of 80%.

The company said in its latest financial report: “By maintaining this level of gearing and a credit rating stronger than that required by Ofwat under our licence we are, in the long run, able to keep our bills a lot lower than they would otherwise be.”

The urgent need for pipe infrastructure renewal was already highlighted earlier this year. “Delving into water”, the Consumer Council’s January report, showed Thames Water are above the industry average in terms of daily water leakage, at over 25%, a consistent figure since 2010 – 2015.

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