The water crisis in Surrey is threatening to turn lifelong Tories into revolutionaries.
“The whole thing needs stirring up, but short of storming the gates what do you do?” asks exasperated retiree Mary Barnby after days of on-off water supplies in the village of Cranleigh.
She lives on leafy Woodland Avenue, where Bentleys are parked in large driveways. Also parked are three water tankers to replenish Thames Water supplies that have been interrupted since last Friday, after years of burst pipes and a pump failure at a local treatment works.
Barnby is furious with the company, on the day it announced a hosepipe ban. “Some of the water bosses should face jail for this rather than £2m bonuses.”
Pointing to one of the water tanker drivers, she says: “That chappy there doesn’t have bonuses – he doesn’t even have a Portaloo.” The driver, Chris, a subcontractor from Redditch in Worcestershire, has been sleeping in a tanker’s cab since Saturday.
Barnby was an enthusiast for water privatisation in 1980s. “I thought yippee, we’ll have some efficiency now. But the efficiency has changed to pure greed.”
She added: “I have mostly voted Conservative, but I won’t do it again.” Asked whether the water crisis had changed her vote, she said: “Water and the energy companies – the profits they make are a joke.”
The local Liberal Democrats reckon such anger could help it pick up so-called blue wall seats. Cranleigh is part of the Guildford constituency – which is 11th on the party’s lists of winnable seats.
“We lost by just 3,337 votes,” says Zoë Franklin, who will be standing again for the party whenever the election is called.
Speaking in Bishops Square where another pipe burst on Monday, she said: “In Cranleigh the water issue comes up on the doorstep all the time.”
Anger peaked at the weekend when up to 9,000 residents had no water during one of warmest spells on record.
Franklin says: “At the weekend people were really confused and angry. The general feeling was: ‘We’re gonna have a hosepipe ban soon. How is that fair, when I see leaks all the time. And now I’ve got no water?’”
Mollie Roberts, a deputy headteacher, said: “I’ve got three kids under eight and we had no water, no showers, nothing on one of the hottest days of the year. We were restricted to two bottles of water for all five of us.”
She added: “In the last eight years there have been at least 20 spurts when the pipes have burst and it’s been like a geyser or a massive leak. There’s frustration with Thames Water because they just don’t listen and they don’t come.”
She thinks water could tip the balance at the election. “This area is moving away from the Tories because there’s been so much housing. I’m really in favour of that, but there hasn’t been any investment and the systems are just overwhelmed.”
Roberts usually votes Labour, but she added: “I vote Lib Dem and when I think they’ve got a chance.”
Cranleigh’s Lib Dem county councillor, Liz Townsend, has been badgering Thames Water about leaks and supplies for more than a decade. On Sunday, she accused the company of ignoring her warnings. On Wednesday, she wrote another email to Thames Water’s chief executive, Sarah Bentley, inviting her to meet residents.
“We cannot carry on like this, lurching from one incident to another,” she wrote.
There is been no response yet, but Townsend’s campaigning is being noticed.
Unprompted, Harold Fuller, a retired farmer and driver, praised her efforts as he chatted to a neighbour as they watched drinking water from another burst pipe flow down their street on the Sherrydon estate.
Fuller, another lifelong Tory, said: “She’s been bloody brilliant. She’s worth a medal.” His neighbour Geoff Trigg, a retired gas engineer and Boris Johnson supporter, agrees. “She’s been terrific. I’d vote for her.”
Fuller is not quite so sure. “I might be tempted to vote Lib Dem if they had a decent leader.”
He remains furious with Thames Water about the latest leak on the estate. “It’s terrible. They said they mended it but it’s still coming out. I feel sorry for them workmen because they take the stick. It’s the worst in the country, they told me. Thames Water should be fined and give us compensation for all the trouble.”
Trigg adds: “There should be some compensation. It’s been terrible, for over 8,000 people it’s been on and off, on and off. And when they tried to put the pressure up it just blew more holes everywhere.”
Thames Water apologised to customers for the problems in the Cranleigh area, which it insisted had now been resolved. It pointed out that bottled water was being supplied to all customers who supplies were cut.
Works to replace burst pipes continue in several holes in the village. A Thames Water notice on each reads: “We’re fixing pipes. So we can always bring you world class tap water.”
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