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Burst pipes and sewage leaks could go unfixed as United Utilities staff vote to go on strike

Burst pipes and sewage leaks could go unfixed after more than 1,000 staff at the country’s largest water company voted to go on strike, i can reveal.

Engineers and maintenance workers who look after both clean and dirty water are among 1,100 workers at United Utilities who are set to down tools in a dispute over pay and conditions.

The results of a ballot carried out by the GMB union this week revealed a majority of 68 per cent voted in favour of industrial action.

It comes as United Utilities, which has monopoly on supplying water to around 7 million people in the North West, faces an Environment Agency investigation over a major sewage leak near Blackpool which led to 14 miles of coastline being closed to bathers for more than two weeks.

People paddle in the sea as they enjoy the sunshine on the beach in Blackpool, north west England on June 14, 2023 (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
People paddle in the sea in Blackpool on June 14, despite the ‘no swim’ warning (Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty)

Councils were forced to issue advice for people not to enter the water after the company admitted it had discharged sewage into the sea on two occasions as a result of a fractured pipe which reduced capacity at the Fleetwood wastewater treatment plant.

Engineers have been working 24 hours a day to build an overground pipe as a temporary fix.

i understands these are the kinds of workers who are expected to be walking out.

“They would be the ones cleaning up the Fylde incident,” a union source said.

“If there’s a burst pipe in the road that won’t get fixed, on the domestic side, if people’s toilet get backed up that wouldn’t get sorted.”

Speaking after it was announced bathing restrictions has been lifted last night, Mark Garth, United Utilities wastewater services director, said the water company had not “spared any cost or resources in our response to what has been a hugely challenging incident.”

But frontline staff who are now set to walk out accuse United Utilities of having failed to invest sufficiently in infrastructure for decades, choosing to pay bosses eye-watering salaries and huge dividends to shareholders instead.

The current chief executive is Louise Beardmore who has worked for United Utilities for more than 20 years and earns a salary of £690,000 a year.

She took over from Steve Mogford, who retired on 31 March this year and was one of the highest-paid bosses in the water industry during his career.

He earned £2.3m in 2022-23, including around £1.3m in bonuses, down from £3.2m in 2021-22.

United Utilities also paid out more than £300m in dividends to shareholders in 2022-23, an increase of 1.9 per cent on the previous year.

It comes as union reps argue the potential collapse of Thames Water illustrates the wider failure of the privatisation of the industry with speculation that other water companies could also be in trouble.

Gary Carter, GMB national officer, said: “Ministers and Ofwat [the water industry regulator] have been asleep at the wheel while executive pay at Thames ballooned, and the company’s debt to asset ratio rose to a totally unsustainable 10:1.

“This vital public resource has been bled dry by private equity parasites – with interest rates skyrocketing the whole thing is a house of cards waiting to collapse.

“It’s crystal clear the privatisation experiment has been a devastating failure.

“We need to get our water industry back into public hands now.”

The latest accounts for United Utilities show operating profits fell from £610m in 2022 to £440m in 2023 and net debt rose to £8.2bn.

Directors said they had a “reasonable expectation that the group will be able to continue in operation and meet its liabilities as they fall due over the seven-year period to March 2030.”

GMB union says it will announce strike dates “in the coming days”.

Steve Whittle, GMB organiser, added: “There is real frustration from our members. They’ve seen their pay slashed in real terms for several years, while shareholders and directors trouser fortunes.

“Meanwhile, the infrastructure is left to crumble through a lack of investment.

“Enough is enough – GMB members at United Utilites demand no more cuts and clean water now.”

A United Utilities spokesperson said: “We have continued to engage with all our four recognised unions over this year’s pay settlement and all unions, including GMB, are currently balloting their members on an improved pay offer.

“We have positive relations with our trade unions and have awarded pay settlements year on year as part of constructive negotiations.

“All of our employees continue to work as normal, maintaining services for customers.”

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