The Surrey water crisis threatens to turn longtime conservatives into revolutionaries.
“The whole thing needs to be shaken up, but aside from storming doors, what do you do?” asks exasperated retiree Mary Barnby after days of intermittent water supply in the town of Cranleigh.
He lives on leafy Woodland Avenue, where the Bentleys are parked in large driveways. Also stationed are three water tankers to replenish supplies from Thames Water that have been cut off since last Friday, after years of broken pipes and a pump failure at a local treatment plant.
Barnby is furious with the company the day it announced the hose ban. “Some of the water chiefs should be facing jail for this rather than £2m bonuses.”
Pointing to one of the tanker drivers, he says, “That chappy doesn’t have bonuses, he doesn’t even have a Portaloo.” The driver, Chris, a subcontractor from Redditch in Worcestershire, has been sleeping in the cab of a tanker since Saturday.
Barnby was an enthusiast for water privatization in the 1980s. “I thought yippee, now we’ll have some efficiency. But efficiency has changed to sheer greed.”
He added: “I have voted overwhelmingly Conservative, but I will not do so again.” When asked if the water crisis had changed his vote, he said: “The water and energy companies, the profits they make are a joke.”
Local Liberal Democrats reckon such anger could help him win so-called blue wall seats. Cranleigh is part of the Guildford constituency, which is ranked 11th on the party’s winnable seat lists.
“We lost by just 3,337 votes,” says Zoë Franklin, who will run for the party again each time the election is called.
Speaking in Bishops Square, where another pipe burst on Monday, he said: “In Cranleigh, the water problem comes at the door all the time.”
The anger peaked over the weekend when as many as 9,000 residents were left without water during one of the hottest spells on record.
Says Franklin: “Over the weekend people were really confused and angry. The general sentiment was: ‘We will soon have a hose ban’. How is that fair, when I see leaks all the time? And now I have no water?’”
Mollie Roberts, Deputy Director, said: “I have three children under the age of 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 the five of us.”
He added: “In the last eight years there have been at least 20 gushes when pipes have burst and it has been like a geyser or a massive leak. There is frustration with Thames Water because they just don’t listen and they don’t come.”
She believes that water could tip the balance in the elections. “This area is moving away from conservatives because there has been a lot of housing. I’m really all for it, but there hasn’t been any investment and the systems are just overwhelmed.”
Roberts usually votes Labour, but added: “I vote Lib Dems and when I think they have a chance.”
Cranleigh Lib Dem County Councilor Liz Townsend has been bugging Thames Water about leaks and supplies for over a decade. On Sunday, she accused the company of ignoring her warnings. On Wednesday, she wrote another email to Thames Water CEO Sarah Bentley, inviting her to meet residents.
“We cannot continue like this, lurching from one incident to another,” he wrote.
There has been no response yet, but Townsend’s campaign is taking notice.
Without warning, Harold Fuller, a retired farmer and driver, praised their efforts while chatting with a neighbor as they watched drinking water from another broken pipe flow down their street on the Sherrydon property.
Fuller, another longtime Tory, said: “She’s been fucking brilliant. She is worth a medal. Her neighbor Geoff Trigg, a retired gas engineer and Boris Johnson supporter, agrees. “She has been great. I would vote for her.”
Fuller isn’t so sure. “He might be tempted to vote Lib Dems if they had a decent leader.”
He’s still furious with Thames Water over the latest leak on the property. “It’s terrible. They said they fixed it but it keeps coming out. I feel sorry for those workers because they take the stick. It’s the worst thing 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 has been terrible, for more than 8,000 people it has been intermittent, intermittent. And when they tried to increase the pressure, more holes opened up everywhere.”
Thames Water apologized to customers for the problems in the Cranleigh area, which it insisted had now been resolved. He noted that bottled water was being supplied to all customers whose supplies were cut off.
Work continues to replace burst pipes in various holes in the town. A Thames Water notice on each reads: “We’re fixing pipes. So that we can always bring you first-class tap water.”