Thames Water has been accused of repeatedly ignoring warnings about cuts to supplies and burst pipes in Surrey where hundreds of households had to endure three days without tap water at the height of this weekend’s heatwave.
Residents, including some who were vulnerable, had to queue for bottled water on Saturday in temperatures of well over 30C (86F) after a pump failure at Netley Mill treatment works.
By Sunday morning up to 1,000 homes began a third day without water. Supplies were restored to up to 9,000 homes, but many households still complained about low water pressure.
Thames Water apologised and confirmed it handed out bottled water to residents in Guildford, Surrey Hills, Dorking and Horsham while engineers worked to restore the supply.
Liz Townsend, a Liberal Democrat county councillor for Cranleigh and Ewhurst, called for Thames Water to be fined over the incident and said the company had failed to respond to numerous complaints about previous cuts in supplies.
“We’re completely exasperated,” she said. “We had a period last summer when there was just bottled water. We had no water in February during the storm, we had no water in the previous hot period at the beginning of July. And now another hot spell and we have no water.
“Our water infrastructure is not resilient enough to cope with all the new housing and the ageing pipes. Whenever they increase the pressure in the system, we get more and more bursts. I’ve been having talks with Thames Water for 10 years, and I’ve been up Westminster several times to raise it, but nobody takes any notice.”
Townsend wrote to Sarah Bentley, the chief executive of Thames Water, in July after a previous interruption in supply. The letter, seen by the Guardian, accused the company of taking months, and in some cases years, to repair burst pipes and said it reneged on a public commitment to provide residents with updates on water supplies.
Bentley has yet to respond.
A statement from Thames Water said: “Netley Mill water treatment works is now back in service and supply is gradually being restored to the local network. This will continue over the remainder of the day. We are very sorry that customers have been impacted especially at a time of high temperatures.
“When supplies do begin to return, we are asking customers to try to use this just for essential use initially. This will help us return supplies to everyone quicker. We are supplying bottled water to customers who we know need additional help. If anyone is unable to travel to a bottled water site they should contact us on 0800 316 9800 and we will provide assistance.”
Cranleigh is the latest village to run out of water after an official drought was declared in eight areas of England. Dozens of households in Northend, Oxfordshire have been reliant on just bottled water for the last five days.
Townsend said: “There was no water on Saturday for [between] 8,000 and 9,000 homes. We have got a trickle this morning. But between 500 and 1,000 households are still without water.”
Residents were told that problems extracting water from a borehole meant that two local reservoirs were completely empty and a third was only a quarter full.
Townsend said Thames Water’s handling of the crisis had been appalling. She said some vulnerable people on the priority list were not sent bottled water, and farmers had no water for livestock.
She added: “There should be financial penalties. If they are not delivering water, people should get refunds. We have thousand and thousands of new houses coming into this area, and yet the basic water infrastructure cannot cope now with the existing number of houses.”
Townsend also called for failing water companies to be renationalised.
“It is such a precious and reducing resource that perhaps we should be looking at having more of a public ownership model for water,” she said.
Three water companies – Welsh Water, Southern Water, and South East Water – have all imposed hosepipe bans, while Yorkshire Water has announced that a ban will start on 26 August, and Thames Water is planning one in the coming weeks.
An amber weather warning for extreme heat remained in place on Sunday for large parts of the south, east, west, Midlands and north of England for a fourth day.