‘I won’t vote Conservative again’: Water crisis in blue wall Surrey could tip balance in election | Water

Surrey’s water crisis threatens to turn lifelong conservatives into revolutionaries.

“All of this needs to be stirred up, but short of storming the gates, what do you do?” asks exasperated pensioner Mary Barnby after days of intermittent water supply in the village of Cranleigh.

She lives on leafy Woodland Avenue, where Bentleys are parked in wide alleys. Three tankers are also parked to replenish water supplies from the River Thames which have been cut off since last Friday, after years of broken pipes and a pump failure at a local sewage treatment plant.

Barnby is furious with the company the day it announced a garden hose ban. “Some of the water bosses should face jail for this rather than £2m bonuses.”

Pointing to one of the tanker drivers, she said, “That guy over there doesn’t have a bonus – he doesn’t even have a Portaloo.” The driver, Chris, a contractor from Redditch in Worcestershire, has been sleeping in the cab of a tanker since Saturday.

Barnby was a water privatization enthusiast in the 1980s. “I thought yay, we’ll have some efficiency now. But efficiency turned into pure greed.

She added: “I mostly voted Conservative, but I won’t do that again.” When asked if the water crisis changed her vote, she replied: “The water and energy companies – the profits they make are a joke.”

Zöe Franklin, who will stand to become the Liberal Democrat MP for Guildford
Zöe Franklin, who will stand to become the Liberal Democrat MP for Guildford, said: ‘In Cranleigh the water issue comes up at the door all the time. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Local Liberal Democrats believe such anger could help him win the so-called Blue Wall seats. Cranleigh is part of the constituency of Guildford – which is 11th on the party’s seat-to-win lists.

“We lost by just 3,337 votes,” says Zoë Franklin, who will represent the party again whenever elections are called.

Speaking in Bishops Square where another pipe burst on Monday, she said: ‘In Cranleigh the water problem comes back to the door all the time.

The anger peaked over the weekend when up to 9,000 residents went without water during one of the hottest spells on record.

Franklin says, “Over the weekend, people were really confused and angry. The general feeling was: “We are going to ban garden hoses soon. How is that fair, when I see leaks all the time. And now I have no more water?

Geoffrey Trigg (left) and Harold Fuller, watching drinking water from another burst pipe run down their street.
Geoffrey Trigg (left) and Harold Fuller, watching drinking water from another burst pipe run down their street. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Mollie Roberts, assistant manager, said: ‘I have three children under eight and we had no water, no showers, nothing on one of the hottest days of the year. We were limited to two bottles of water for the five of us.

She added: “In the last eight years there have been at least 20 spurts when the pipes have burst and it has been like a massive geyser or leak. There is frustration with Thames Water because they just don’t listen and they don’t come.

She thinks the water could tip the balance in the election. “This area is moving away from conservatives because there has been so much housing. I’m really in favor of that, but there’s been no investment and the systems are just overwhelmed.

Roberts usually votes for Labor, but she added: ‘I vote Lib Dem and when I think they have a chance.’

Worker repairing leaking pipes.
Worker repairing leaking pipes. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Cranleigh Lib Dem County Councilor Liz Townsend has been harassing Thames Water over 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 chief executive Sarah Bentley inviting her to meet the residents.

“We can’t go on like this, teetering from incident to incident,” she wrote.

There has been no response yet, but Townsend’s campaign is taking notice.

Uninvited, Harold Fuller, a retired farmer and driver, praised his efforts as he chatted with a neighbor as they watched drinking water from another burst pipe run down their street onto the estate of Sherrydon.

Fuller, another longtime curator, said, “She was damn brilliant. She is worth a medal. His neighbor Geoff Trigg, a retired gas engineer and Boris Johnson supporter, agrees. “She was great. I would vote for her.

Fuller isn’t so sure. “I might be tempted to vote Lib Dem if they had a decent leader.”

Thames Water staff distribute bottled water to residents who have no water after a problem at the water treatment plant.
Thames Water staff distribute bottled water to residents who have no water after a problem at the water treatment plant. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

He remains furious with Thames Water over the latest leak on the estate. “It’s terrible. They said they fixed it but it still comes out. I pity those workers because they take the stick. It’s the worst in the country, they told me Thames Water should be fined and compensated for all the issues.”

Trigg adds: “There should be compensation. It’s been terrible, for over 8,000 people it’s been intermittently, intermittently. And when they tried to turn up the heat, it just blew more holes everywhere.

Thames Water has apologized to customers for the issues in the Cranleigh area, which it said had now been resolved. He pointed out that bottled water was provided to all customers whose supply was cut off.

Work to replace burst pipes continues in several holes in the village. A Thames Water notice on each reads: “We fix the pipes. So we can always bring you world-class tap water.

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