50 ways pipes can flood streets: Thames Water insists it cannot tell where next burst might be
Bosses face council grilling as they claim UK is bottom of league in Europe for upgrading mains
29 February, 2020 — By Tom Foot
Tim McMahon and Simon Moore from Thames Water arrive for a scrutiny grilling at the Town Hall
WATER bosses cannot predict which pipes are about to burst and rank themselves “near the bottom, if not the bottom” in Europe when it comes to upgrading old mains, a council meeting heard.
Thames Water’s head of water networks, Tim McMahon, told the environment scrutiny committee on Tuesday that the age of pipes was one of “about 50 reasons” they blow, adding it was “very difficult” to guess where to target investment.
Decisions were based on a calculation of “where is the biggest risk to life and limb” and frequency of recent leaks. But it meant sometimes a “good street” could be dug up to fix pipes unnecessarily.
“It is incredibly tough to understand where to invest if I’m honest,” said Mr McMahon. “Age is not the only factor. There is no tool you can put in a pipe that will say that will say ‘ta dah’ that’s what needs replacing.”
He added: “There are about 50 reasons why a pipe might burst – soil, the clay, pressure… Then there is where in the pipe to look at.” He said “technology to find leaks has not changed in 15 years”. Committee chairman Labour councillor Awale Olad said it was “incredible” technology had not advanced to meet this need, adding: “There is no real strategy we can look at to stop increases [in pipe bursts].”
The number of burst pipes are up in the past two years in Camden, particularly in Hampstead, West Hampstead and Euston.
Simon Moore, Thames Water’s assistant planing chief for London, compared the situation to a doctor diagnosing a patient for a heart condition “based on a their lifestyle” rather than looking at their arteries.
Thames Water is updating Victorian mains pipes across London in what it says is a record investment in the network. But when asked where this country ranked compared to the rest of Europe on fixing replacing pipes, Mr McMahon said: “Probably near the bottom, if not the bottom in terms of upgrading assets. Germany is near the top.”
The meeting heard Thames Water’s two main risk sites in Camden were Eversholt Street in Euston and West End Lane in West Hampstead. Utility works in Eversholt Street were being led by the HS2 railway project and were dependent on that scheme’s timetables, councillors were told.
Awale Olad chairing the meeting
Liberal Democrat councillor Tom Simon said that the works might be put back because of HS2 delays. Labour councillor Heather Johnson said HS2-led water works in Regent’s Park estate were causing “huge disruption for traffic and even walking”, adding: “These concerns have been around for a very long time. This is Victorian, the kind of stuff you get on the Antiques Road Show. “This is not a problem that is suddenly happening. Nothing has been done about this for years and years.”
Labour councillor Nayra Bello O’Shanahan said the opinions of residents were “totally different” to those of Thames Water shareholders.
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Mr McMahon said the company faced huge financial penalties from the regulator for failing to hit targets, which outweighed dividend payouts to shareholders.
He said leakages across London had halved since 2005 and that Camden had gone from being the second-worst borough for leakages to above average, adding that Camden burst pipe leaks were down from 1,000 a year to 100 a year. This meant pipe replacement investment was likely to be targeted elsewhere in London.
Mr McMahon said investment had trebled since privatisation of the service, but added: “We are keeping bills flat over the next five years – inhibiting how much we can invest over the network.”
He added: “We can’t increase investment.”