This case study provides local authorities with an insight into the wider public health benefits that were envisaged when the new private supply regulations were introduced and the Inspectorate acquired a supervisory role on behalf of the Secretary of State. In particular, the case study examines one aim of the Regulation 13 duty on local authorities to provide the Inspectorate with details of the location and nature of private supplies in their area enabling the Inspectorate to integrate private supplies into the existing wider national arrangements for safeguarding drinking water.
The Inspectorate has in place a range of intelligence sharing arrangements that provide alerts to circumstances that may threaten drinking water quality. In particular, the Inspectorate is alerted by the EA to events that may affect the quality of surface or groundwater and also receives bespoke media monitoring and other situation reports specifically aimed at identifying developing situations with a potential to impact on drinking water. In 2013 three such events, described below, were identified and acted upon by the Inspectorate to quickly identify any at risk private supplies.
At the end of 2013, stormy weather brought down power cables across the South East of England. The Inspectorate was notified by the EA that an oil-filled power cable damaged in the storm was leaking. Some power cables are oil filled for performance and insulation purposes. The initial report from the EA did not indicate whether consideration had been given to a risk to any private water supplies and so the Inspectorate quickly contacted the EA controller to confirm what was known. It was established that the EA had been unable to source location details for private supplies in the vicinity, so using the relevant local authority data returns the Inspectorate was able to quickly map the location of the nearest private supplies and establish these were all over 2km away from the incident site. This response allowed the EA to confirm that the remediation approach being adopted by the power company would not put private supplies at risk.
In January 2014, the Inspectorate picked up on a breaking news story that a large fire at a waste management site (vehicle tyre store) had been burning since October 2013 because the fire brigade were disinclined to put out the fire due to concerns about run-off firewater polluting local water supplies. The Inspectorate quickly checked the location of public abstraction points and private supplies in the area and then directly challenged the media story as inaccurate. This action revealed that the actual media concern was for wildlife (Greater Crested Newts, a protected species resident in the vicinity of the site of the fire). A rapid response is essential to the task of successfully heading off inaccurate media reporting that, if left to run uncorrected, would cause public concern about drinking water.
In January 2014, when severe flooding occurred in South West England, the water company notified the Inspectorate that public supplies to the affected communities such as Muchelney were unaffected (piped supplies being underground and under positive pressure). By using this information about the extent of the flooded area, the Inspectorate mapped the location of private supplies potentially at risk from the local authority’s data return and this identified an inundated caravan park. However, a check with the local authority confirmed that the water supply to the site originated from the local mains. In emergency situations the Inspectorate inputs information about drinking water risks to the daily national situation reports compiled by Cabinet Office. Fast access to both public and private supply data enables the Inspectorate to manage the accuracy of these fast moving flows of information so that they provide reassurance, where that is appropriate, or focus attention on only those situations where a risk has been identified and is being responded to by the relevant agencies.
These and other case studies provide good evidence that local authority data returns (Regulation 13) are making a positive contribution to the national framework for risk management of drinking water safety. The Inspectorate is aware that hitherto some local authorities may not have fully appreciated the public health protection purpose and use of annual private supply data returns. This case study, along with case studies 8 and 13, provide local authorities with the wider context and necessary insight to address any outstanding local policy or resource issues impeding the delivery of complete and accurate private supply returns going forward.