Chimney Sweep

‘There’s a nagging concern’: the village that may’t depend on operating water | Water

Yvonne Hinde opens her fridge to reveal three big bottles of water. There are two buckets full in her garden. “We have to be prepared,” she says. She isn’t being dramatic. Like other residents of Everton in Bedfordshire, Hinde, 59, a childminder, can no longer take running water for granted.

Since the start of July the supply has been severely interrupted or cut off five times. Often the taps run dry for hours at a time. The problems have forced the pub to close and the village school to tell children to stay at home. “It makes life really difficult,” says Hinde, who is forced to close her business when the water isn’t running.

Amid extreme heat and a drought warning covering the region, Hinde and Everton’s other residents fear the situation will get worse. The village, in farmland between Bedford and Cambridge and home to about 500 people, is one of the hottest and driest spots in England.

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Even before the record-breaking temperatures it had been struggling with its supply, because of old pipes that often burst and pumping equipment that villagers say cannot cope with demand.

Add to that the fact that the village is slightly uphill from the source at the end of a water line, and the heightened demand in the hot weather, and it’s a “perfect storm,” says Everton parish council chair Andy Simpson, 70, who Regularly fills five five-liter containers with water to keep as a backup supply.

“The extreme heat is a particular concern: the hotter the temperatures, the more people need water, and the more outages there are for us,” he says. “There’s this nagging fear all the time that the water isn’t going to be there.”

Jo Neville, who works as a nurse, is forced to have back-up supplies on hand at all times. Photographer: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

Many villagers have become accustomed to the lack of a reliable supply. Jo Neville, 54, a resident of 16 years, keeps five bottles in the fridge. It’s enough to keep the family – Jo, husband Andy, 56, and their three teenage children – hydrated if the supply stops. “The nearest shop is over two miles away, so it’s not like you can just nip and buy a few bottles,” she says.

While the stockpile tides them over for a few hours, it isn’t enough for the household to function smoothly. Neville is a nurse; her husband is a chimney sweep, so there are showers to be had and uniforms washed. “Everything becomes a lot harder. Everyone is frustrated,” she says.

Last month, after days of low pressure and an on-off supply, things reached boiling point when the problem ruined the biggest event of the Everton calendar: the village hog roast. Anglian Water had sent a tanker to provide an emergency supply. After a few hours it left, with the driver promising a replacement would soon return, villagers claim. But as 100 people gathered at the local hall for the 7.30pm feast, the replacement tanker hadn’t showed up. Soon, the water had run out. With none to flush toilets or wash up, the result was “chaos”. “Tempers were frayed to the extreme,” Simpson says.

More dramatic consequences are not beyond the realms of imagination. Amid extreme heat on 19 July the village green caught fire, sending plumes of smoke over houses and charring the hedgerow. Nearby, an even more serious blaze raged in a farmer’s fields. As firefighters tried to bring them under control, residents were told the domestic supply needed to be shut off to cope with the “unprecedented demand”.

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Anglian Water says it is doing all it can “to reduce the risk of further interruptions for residents”. It said the water network had been severely affected by the hot weather, with demand for public water supply up significantly, meaning pressures were lower in many areas. It added that it was investigating the quality of local pumps and was in the process of replacing pipes.

But residents say the solutions are “sticking plasters” and accuse Anglian of failing to take the problems seriously enough, despite knowing about them for years. They also say they are often left in the dark when they are cut off, with “polite and quick to answer” customer service agents often unable to provide insights into the availability of tankers or updates on when issues will be fixed.

For the local pub, the Thornton Arms, the problems are having a major impact. “It’s been a huge pain in the backside,” said Hannah Cruise, 28, who recently took over the local pub. “We use a lot of water for cooking, washing glasses and toilets, so it has a big impact on business. The uncertainty is the worst thing. If they said they’d cut the water off once every few weeks, you’d be able to cope with it, but there’s no warning.”

Colin Allen, 92, an army veteran and retired teacher, said that the problems were damaging his quality of life. He lives alone and relies on a consistent water supply to be able to cook, clean and offer cups of tea to guests, including a helper who supports him to remain independent. If she comes at a certain time and there’s no water, it throws the day into disarray.

He accused Anglian of “kicking the can down the road” and called for urgent action by the government and Ofwat, the regulator, to ensure a consistent supply. “The system is broken. I don’t think they’re taking that seriously enough.”

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