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Is everything in the garden rosy? It had better be

Dean Stiles

Ofwat says water companies should ensure contractors meet their codes of practice. But should there be a universal standard?

Ofwat ruled against Thames Water in landscape gardening rowOfwat ruled against Thames Water in landscape gardening row

Dealing with the public tests the patience of saints. And contractors digging trenches in gardens of houses are rarely saints so it is no surprise that Thames Water should find itself on the losing end of a complaint by a householder following repair work to a collapsed sewer pipe.

This sort of problem is likely to increase given the 2011 scheme for the adoption of private sewers that means the majority of sewers located on private property, rear gardens and close to proposed extensions are now owned and maintained by the local sewerage undertaker. And, for added complication to the life of contractors that most water companies use for such small works, many of these sewers are not yet shown on the public sewer records.

Ofwat has ruled against Thames Water in a dispute between a house owner and Thames Water over the exercise by Thames Water of powers provided the Water Industry Act 1991 to carry out work on private land.
The dispute ended up with Ofwat for resolution where the householder alleged that Thames Water had failed adequately to consult the complainant both before and in the course of exercising its powers to enter the property. In addition, the complainant had suffered loss or damage and be subjected to inconvenience as a result of Thames Water’s failure.

Ofwat’s assessment was that there were instances where Thames Water fell short of the expectations set out in the code, which caused the householder inconvenience. In 2012, Thames Water served the householder with a notice issued under section 159 of the act to enter the property to carry out repairs to sewer pipes located there. Representatives of Thames Water met with the householder concerned in Ofwat’s ruling, and the owner of the neighbouring property, on November 13 and 14, 2012 to discuss the proposed work.

Repairs
The company provided the householder with a copy of its code of practice for the exercise of pipe laying powers on private land. The code sets out what the landowner is entitled to expect from Thames and any expectations on matters such as consultation, communications and standard of reinstatement. Thames Water’s contractor entered the garden of the property between in November 2012 and the second week of December 2012, to carry out repairs to a collapsed sewer pipe running under the site  and through the garden of a neighbouring property and do the required reinstatement of the site.

With the legalise out of the way, what actually happened? The householder claimed that Thames Water had failed to reinstate the garden to its original condition. The result was the householder had to restore the site, the garden in this case, to its original condition.

It is worth reminding ourselves that there was no complaint about the quality and effectiveness of repair work to the sewer which the contractor, and water company, may have thought to be the most important aspect of the job.

The householder’s principal gripe was about the quality of the topsoil used to reinstate the garden. The householder alleged that the topsoil placed over the site was full of debris such as nails, broken glass, can pull-rings and large stones. The householder said they removed 16 wheelbarrows full of large stones and debris and purchased topsoil in order to reseed the lawn.

Since Thames Water was unable to indicate whether the replacement topsoil provided was to the standard set out in its code, Ofwat’s assessment was that Thames Water did not restore the site to its original condition, and that, as a consequence, the complainant was put to the inconvenience of reinstating the garden to its original condition.

It seems clear, reading the detail of Ofwat’s assessment that the householder lost confidence, if they had any in the first place, in the contractor early on in the job. The householder had in a letter to Thames Water alleged that the contractor’s employee had spent a lot of time sitting in the van, and left the site at between 3.30pm and 4.00pm each day. There were some days when no-one was on the site. Any contractor dealing with the public has been here before dealing with householders who expect the entire weight of a water company’s resources be brought to bear instantly to deal with a problem, no matter how trivial.

Thames Water recognises that all was not well on this particular job, that its code of practice had not been fully complied with, and has provided the householder with £3,900 worth of new patio in compensation. Add to that sum, the cost of Ofwat’s investigation plus management time at Thames Water and by the contractor dealing with the complaint, and this was one very expensive small job. And it may well be one of many such problems as water companies get involved in more of these small works in householders’ gardens where the services of landscape gardeners are also needed to sort the final mess out.

Much of Ofwat’s ruling deals with the code of practice and how it was, or was not adhered to. Ofwat says “it is expected that water and sewerage undertakers will have systems and processes in place to ensure that its contractors are acting in compliance with its code of practice”.

Unique problems
Would a code of practice common to all water companies help? Probably not, in that the regional nature of water supply may well throw up unique problems that particular water companies must address. A common code may well become an overly elaborate document given the small scale of the works generally involved.

A key lesson is that householder complaints are likely not to be about the quality of water and sewage repairs, but about the trivia, from the contractor’s point of view, of garden reinstatement.

For contractors it may well be useful to employ, or have contact with, specialist landscape gardeners to handle garden reinstatement work. Clearly what a contractor thinks is topsoil is not always what a landscape gardener thinks is topsoil.

So when you next dig up Mrs Smith’s prize rose beds while looking for a pipe, brace yourself for the extra cost of landscaping the garden that even the most saintly of contractors will have trampled.

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