Infrastructure Problems ‘Keep Me Awake At Night’ Says Council Chief Exec
Theo Leijser told a public meeting at the Old Wesleyan Chapel that he favoured a “whole islands’ solution” to the EU requirement for the Council to upgrade water quality and sewage treatment.
Theo believes a mainland provider, such as South West Water, would start a programme of improvements in around two years because an investment of £20m, “is neither here nor there” to a major operator.
And a working group, which involves the key agencies, is now assessing what needs to be done for Scilly to reach compliance.
Water and sewage service provision in Scilly is fragmented. The Council is the operator for St Mary’s and Bryher. The Duchy provides some services on St Agnes and St Martin’s and Tresco looks after its own infrastructure.
That situation has developed because the islands opted out of Mrs Thatcher’s water privatisation programme in 1989, a decision that Cllr Steve Sims told the meeting was, “a mistake.”
Defra started to push for change with their public meetings last winter. They are concerned because if Scilly’s supply isn’t up to the EU standard, that creates an issue for the UK government as a whole.
The consultation sessions generated forty responses from locals, which Mr Leijser says is “significant” but he says the Council still hasn’t seen the final report.
And he’s concerned that the government’s conclusions could throw up additional infrastructure problems.
He told the public meeting that if St Martin’s is thought to need a desalination plant to meet demand, the undersea power cable may not have the required capacity.
Cllr Gordon Bilsborough said he is worried that the Council could face penalties if improvements are not made.
But Cllr Sims was convinced that the government will need to fund a solution as the upgrades won’t happen if they don’t pay for them.
And he shrugged off Gordon’s concerns about fines. Steve told the meeting that the government will have to pay those anyway.
During the session, some locals called for domestic water meters and Cllr Sims agreed that charging for the amount used would encourage water saving.
But Mr Leijser says the Council is too small and “doesn’t have the capacity” to manage meters currently.
He thinks that if a larger water operator took over, they’d introduce meters quickly, which could reduce many locals’ bills, although he expects that larger local families would face higher payments under metering.
There was a call for the Council to prioritise water and sewerage improvements over some of their other projects, such as smart grid technology.
One islander questioned the plan to build 120 new homes because planning applications can be turned down if developments are thought likely to put strain on existing infrastructure.
Concerns about falling water reserves were also shared.
Cllr Sims said that, “if push comes to shove” water could be brought over on the Scillonian. That prompted a resident to suggest, “little has happened in 25 years” and another called for the Council to concentrate on water rather than new schemes, adding, “your basics aren’t there.”
Two separate groups will decide what happens next.
The government has set up a working party that includes the Council, the Drinking Water Inspectorate and Defra. Theo hopes it will provide an “honest assessment.”
He’s also starting an open, locals’ forum because, “the Council needs to better engage with the community.”
And when the funding solution is found, it’s likely that not everyone will be happy. Steve Sims warned attendees that they’ll need to dig up the newly surfaced roads to do it.