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United Utilties faces mass legal action threat over Cumbria floods

A Cumbrian law firm is preparing to mount what could become a mass legal action against United Utilities over last month’s floods in Cumbria.

Workington-based KJ Commons & Co is acting for a small group of people who believe they have a valid claim. The law firm has set up a website aimed at other potential claimants.

The action has come to light as fresh details about the role of United Utilities in the hours before, during and after the floods have been revealed. Particular concern has been raised over United Utilities’ operation of Thirlmere reservoir, upstream of Cockermouth.

Cockermouth is built at the confluence of two rivers, The Cocker, fed by Crummock Water and Buttermere, and the Derwent, fed by Derwent Water/Bassenthwaite and by the rivers Glenderamackin/Greta, which are in turn fed by a tributary, St John’s Beck, which is the outflow from Thirlmere Reservoir.

In a letter to United Utilities, the law firm is questioning the operation of the reservoir during the floods. It quotes from a letter allegedly sent by United Utilities to local MP Tony Cunningham in the aftermath of the floods that appears to suggest that the reservoir was allowed to overflow to protect drinking water supplies as far away as Manchester.

The law firm questions United Utilities’ management of the reservoir, and says that it should have foreseen the heavy rainfall and lowered water levels in advance.

“The late autumn was characterised by an unusual (but not atypical) weather pattern whereby warm, moist air was being drawn up to the North West of England from The Azores; upon reaching the Cumbrian Coast and rising over the mountains the air cooled, and dropped moisture in the form of substantial precipitation. The weather pattern was well established and extremely heavy rain, indeed of the magnitude that fell on 19 November 2009, was therefore both entirely foreseeable and indeed forecast some days beforehand,” it says in its letter.

“Despite this, as you have informed the Allerdale MP, Tony Cunningham the water level in the reservoir had been so high that it had been overflowing the spillway from 27 October 2009.

“Worse, on the day of the inundation of Keswick and West Cumbria, you have told him that the main abstraction from the reservoir into the aqueduct supplying Manchester was “closed off to protect drinking water and public health of a population of 500,000 people supplied by the reservoir”.”

The law firm adds that its letter should be seen as “notification that the management of the water resources at Thirlmere and elsewhere is under close examination, with a view to proceedings being commenced for compensation”.

It has asked the utility to provide details of all inspections and recommendations made in line with the Reservoirs Act 1975, the maintenance and repair records for the three years commencing 20 November 2006 for the abstraction pumps and aqueduct, information as to the time the pumps were switched off on 19 November and the reason for the switch off, water level records for the period 27 October to 20 November and details of the means by which the reservoir level was “dropped” on 19 November 2009.

It adds that it is inviting this information voluntarily but will take legal action to obtain it if it is not supplied.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Does anyone know if the new Floods bill will change responsibilities in cases like this?

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  • United Utilities would like to make clear that the flooding in Cumbria during November was caused by an exceptional rainfall event, not the management of Thirlmere reservoir.

    The reservoir has always been and continues to be managed in consultation with local stakeholders, including Keswick Flood Action Group.

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