Wise Howell: Unpacking the Government’s “Plan for Water”

Wise Howell: Unpacking the Government’s “Plan for Water”

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Jeff Howell’s Wise Howell column continues for Professional Builder, along with his focus on water issues

This column can’t seem to get away from water issues at the moment. Just when I was hoping to write about World War III and atom-bomb-proof air raid shelters – or something equally cheerful – the government comes up with its new “Plan for Water”.

Cynics might say this is due to the terrible publicity surrounding the fact that our drinking water is polluted with millions of tiny particles of microplastics, and our rivers and beaches are subjected to regular outpourings of raw sewage. Progress in the 21st Century, eh? Dontcha love it?

As I write this, the country has been subjected to several weeks of torrential downpours. The gutters are full and people are stepping over puddles on the pavements. But all this rainwater simply runs off into drains and rivers and eventually the sea. Don’t bet against a drought and a hosepipe ban this summer.

Britain hasn’t built a new reservoir since 1991 – that’s 32 years ago. During which time the population has grown by goodness knows how many million people, and our individual water use has increased exponentially as well. Power showers, garden irrigation systems, car washes – we can’t get enough of the stuff.

So what is the government response – instruct the shareholders of the privatised water companies to cough up for a few new reservoirs? Not a bit of it. The emphasis is to stop leaks from the creaking Victorian water supply network – a subject that I might have mentioned before.

The latest “Plan” mentions the unnecessary waste from internal WC cistern overflows – which the newspaper reporters wrongly blame on dual-flush cisterns.

Dual flushing has nothing to do with it, of course, it’s the hidden leakage from internal overflow pipes that is the problem. And even a traditional cistern can have an internal overflow pipe now, thanks to a ridiculous decision taken in the year 2000.

Overflow pipes used to be called “warning pipes”, and the idea was that the splashing of water onto the path or ground outside would alert the occupants to the problem, and allow the fault to be fixed.

But in 2000, the water industry declared that modern ball valves were so reliable that there was no longer any need for external warning pipes, and that in the rare event of a ball valve malfunction, the trickle of water down the back of the toilet bowl would be sufficient warning for the occupier to notice the problem. Well, that worked out well, didn’t it?

As I reported recently, even I – an experienced builder – didn’t notice that my downstairs loo was overflowing into the toilet bowl until Thames Water sent a man round to investigate my “unusual” water meter readings.

So it’s the power showers and the dual-flush toilets that are in the government’s sights for now. No new reservoirs. And every time we get torrential rain, the sewage can simply overflow into our rivers and onto our beaches. Lovely.

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