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It is about time our water bills reflected amounts used

Antony Oliver

Thames Water’s chief executive Martin Baggs made me a very happy man last week with a surprise gift, out of the blue, of my very own water meter.

The gift (uninstalled by the way!) was the result of our frequent conversations about how little the general public appreciates the water it uses or in fact how much their water supply actually costs.

And to his constant despair, in line with the majority of the UK public, my domestic water consumption remains unmetered. The Oliver family simply pays the bill each month and uses the resource with abandon.

Well not exactly “with abandon”. I know that the average person uses around 160 litres a day. I have fitted water-saving cistern balloons and changed a few tap heads and have banned running the tap while brushing teeth.

But as this week’s government-sponsored drought summit highlights, such consumption and such small measures to cut down usage are increasingly not enough - particularly if you live in the South East, which as of this week, was officially added to the Anglia region as being “in drought” with accompanying water restrictions set to follow.

“Without a water meter I have no way of knowing, and no incentive to find out, when I might be using more or less”

A frozen water pipe recently forced me to live for a day without water in my taps, relying instead on bottled water and buckets of thawed snow. Frankly it was expensive, pretty inconvenient and not something that I want to live with regularly.

But the reality is that unless the problem of low rainfall is managed properly, a huge swathe of the nation is set to suffer such inconvenience on a regular basis unless we tackle the situation.

Hence this week’s summit. However, environment secretary Caroline Spelman’s headline conclusion that the simplest way to tackle the problem is for all of us to simply use less must be questioned.

As Baggs would point out, without a meter in my house (one that’s fitted) there remains no direct correlation between what I use and what I actually pay. Without a meter I have no way of knowing, and no incentive to find out, when I might be using more or less.

So the solution is surely obvious - tackle this issue and make the fitting of water meters compulsory in every property. Bill customers for what they actually use each day then couple this with a charging structure that actually incentivises a changed behaviour - for example by making this precious resource more expensive.

Certainly, it is good to see a summit reinforce the need for water companies to fulfill their regulated duties regarding water losses and leakage detection and to boost communication with customers.

But the reality is that under the current regulatory regime, the only way to allow water companies to invest in ultimately tackling the problem with new storage facilities, upgrades to leaking pipes or new interconnectors is to
actually allow them to charge customers more for something that is currently very cheap

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (2)

  • I would be prepared to bet real money that the major costs in any water undertaking is in building and maintaining the system; if consumers reduced their demand by 50%, the actual costs of providing a supply would fall by very little. The real failure is that the dry southern parts of England have failed to develop sufficient resources to meet the demand; this is not new, it has been talked about for at least 50 years. Where is the Joseph Chamberlain for the south-east?
    Domestic metering might make Mr Oliver feel virtuous but it would have little real effect on the costs of providing the infrastructure or developing new sources of supply. Water is free, it just costs a lot to gather and deliver to the consumer

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  • David Solan

    Water may currently have little or no perceived value as supply usually outstrips demand in the UK. I reccomend this online lecture which perhaps explains the true value of water:

    http://www.cpdlectures.com/cpdlectures.com/Lecture.aspx?id=47

    Should Europe really be importing water from Africa?

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