From the 'late' report presented to Scrutiny Commitee - Source: LINK
It was good to see some effective scrutiny at Wednesday's Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee when a Thames Water representative appeared to report on surface water flooding in the borough. Criticism does tend to be sharper of bodies outside the council, but an awful lot of frustration was apparent and questioning from councillors was persistent. Chair of Scrutiny, Cllr Rita Conneely drew attention to the difference between a cash-strapped public sector council and a for profit privatised water company.
Cllr Saqib Butt challenged Alex Nickson from Thames Water on why in his experience of 5 years on Planning Committee, Thames Water had always just said 'No Objection' to every planning objection. Nickson thought that was not the case in every borough and would check.
Towards the end of the meeting Cllr Conneely directly addressed Nickson and I think is worth quoting in full to give you a flavour of the exchanges:
Thanks for attending and providing a detailed and helpful contribution, but unfortunately it has still left me with serious concerns about Thames Water's understanding of accountability and partnership working.
The flooding that instigated this entire process led to you attending our Scrutiny Committee in 2021. When Thames Water came last year, what was clearly communicated was that Thames understood that there had been a failure of accountability, there had been a failure of effective communication with the public and local authority, and that there needed to be clarity around responsibilities and accountability.
You said at the beginning of tonight's meeting that you were glad to be here and would be happy to come back again regarding future reviews. Unfortunately, the reality is that when we were inviting Thames Water to attend our meetings for the follow-up they had committed to last year, they were incredibly reluctant and tried to avoid attending for as long as possible. We really had to assert that it was part of our agreement last year that you would come back and report on what happened with the internal review and the independent review [into the floods].
Additionally, the Committee publicises reports, that is how the structure of the Committee works - it is a local government function, and Thames Water did not provide us with the documentation that was requested and necessary for the Committee. Your verbal responses tonight have been very good but as none of that unfortunately was provided in advance for Committee members to review, that has limited members' ability to properly scrutinise some of the issues that have been raised tonight.
In addition to that the report that was eventually provided late (LINK), about 2 days ago, couldn't be properly reviewed by the public either and was Brent specific in only one way so we still have no understanding of what infrastructure upgrades we are going to see in Brent and what funding will be provided. Very few Brent residents at the end of this meeting are going to understand what these commitments mean to Brent - that is something we must see. I really hope you get back to use regarding the information you have promised tonight very rapidly.
I would like to know that there is an Action Plan for the recommendations that are detailed in the Independent Review. How are we as residents and councillors to know when the recommendations will be delivered? Where are the lessons learnt? Where will the promised further reports go, and what is the review process?
Alex Nickson replied:
It is entirely my fault that my report was late, I apologise for that, it should have been with you earlier. I didn't realise it was 'required' - I thought it was 'advised'. I apologise to the Committee and residents.
Regarding the Independent Review and tracking, my report says there are 28 recommendations, 3 of which are specifically for Thames to address. 25 of them are more strategic and relate to multi-agency collaboration. These should be reviewed as part of developing the London level strategy and will be determined by the London Level Surface Water Strategic Group as to whether they are appropriate. These actions may, or may o, be taken forward as determined by the Strategic Group. We need collaborative working to manage the risk and not all the actions are entirely down to Thames Water to deliver. There is a tracking process for them and that will be reported on.
You said you wanted us to give you an expectation of what upgrades will be coming to Brent and the level of investment. That will be set out in our next Business Plan 2025-2030, and it will be published for consultation this summer. I have committed to come back to the Committee to tale about out London Level Strategy and our draft plan. That will set out the high-level investment we plan to make. What I would stress is that surface water management is the responsibility of the lead local flood authority [Brent] and therefore it is for us to work with you and support you in the development of detailed plans for Brent - not for us to say what needs to happen: where and when, but a collaborative approach. I believe we have a good working relationship with the borough officers and look forward to doing this in the future.
Cllr Conneely responded.
That is a helpful reassurance but to reiterate, you say that of the 28 recommendations only 3 of them are the responsibility of Thames Water. We need a clear action plan of how Thames are following through those recommendations and effectively lobbying for them. Unfortunately, the concern of the Committee is that similarly to the assurances you gave to Cllr Saqib Butt about planning, which sounds nice on paper, but nothing happens in practice. I represent Kilburn where 17 families in my ward lost their homes in 2021. I'm not interested in words - the commitment we want to see from Thames Water is that there is going to be difference in practice.
My final feedback is on another key issue that was highlighted following the incident in 2021, and highlighted again tonight by Cllr Georgiou, about subsequent incidents involving Thames Water, that of poor communication, particularly around your Control Centre. In 2021 residents were calling up in desperate need of help and the Control Centre was totally unequipped to deal with it and couldn’t signpost residents to what they should be doing. They were simply told to call the fire brigade. As Cllr Georgiou has highlighted there was similar lack of communication last year. I have at least 3 examples of residents in my ward contacting Thames Water about issues that were definitely their responsibility of residents being told, 'No, that's your local authority'. In one scenario for 3 weeks Thames told my residents that it was a local authority issue until I basically went and stood there for 2 or 3 days until a Thames Operative came out and said it was a sewage issue and your responsibility to resolve but for 3 weeks you told residents. ‘No – call your local authority’.
So, despite the reassurances we were given in 2022 that there had been a massive overhaul and there was going to be a massive training of your Control Centre staff, we have clear evidence in Brent that it continues to be not good enough.
Alex Nickson responded.
If there are particular instances you’d like us to take up I’d be happy to take that away. Where we’re wrong, I can only apologise. We have increased the capacity of our Call Centre but on the evenings of the 12th and 27th of July we were absolutely swamped. We had 4,000 calls an hour coming in and we simply couldn’t manage. We have apologised. We have increased the capacity, we’ve done training, we’ve restructured the way the calls come in and we’ve fundamentally changed the way we prepare head of a storm. We’ve made sure we have those resources even if the Met Weather Forecast suggests it is unlikely to cause significant flooding.
So, we have learnt lessons, we have applied them but it sounds like we don’t get it right enough.
I will publish the full recommendations made by Scrutiny when they are reported on the Council website.