UK: Water meters may be forced on millions

This summer may be Britain's worst drought for thirty years, and hose-pipe bans and standpipes are already being discussed.

Submitted by Freedom on March 2, 2006

Sound similar to the news stories every year around this time? Well not quite.

Measures are being put into place by New Labour and the water companies which may severely restrict access to water for low income and large households. They could have long term implications on the delivery of water to households in the UK, whilst allowing the water companies to continue with massive wastage and high profits.

Folkestone and Dover Water have been given permission to force every one of it's customers to install water meters. They applied for "water scarcity status" under the Water Industry Regulations Act of 1999, and after this first decision it's likely many other companies will follow. The BBC has estimated that this may lead to millions of meters being installed across the UK.

However while more and more stringent restrictions are being placed on water usage by individuals, the water companies are losing billions of litres a day, and the main users of water are being ignored in a media and corporate focus on 'personal responsibility'.

Individual households are estimated to use around 150 litres of water per day according to the Environment Agency and Staffordshire Water PLC.

Thames Water is losing 915 million litres per day from leakage before it reaches customers according to Ofwat - enough to supply approximately 6 million households, and around a third of it's total supply.

Last year was the third consecutive year that it missed targets set by the regulator. The country's 23 water firms only managed to reduce leakage by around 1% or 40 million litres, with Cambridge Water and United Utilities also missing targets in 2005. Ofwat took no action against Cambridge water due to a longer term agreement.

Folkestone and Dover have said they will charge users for leaks between the mains pipe and their property since pipes within boundaries are the property of the homeowner. A Thames Water customer in last month spent more than a week with raw sewage flooding his basement due to a dispute between the ALMO running his Waltham Forest council house and Thames Water over ownership of the pipe. If it takes that long to fix an emergency due to disputes, we forsee chaos and massive expense for council tenants and private renters caught in a three or four way dispute over leaks whilst paying for water they won't even be able to use.

Water metering is new stage in the move towards shifting responsibility away from the monopolies and onto individual consumers. Previous measures have largely been limited to advertising campaigns, threats of fines and occasional physical shortages (or chronic low water pressure). However, once installed, metering will continue long after the 'emergency conditions' have gone.

It's not only leakage by the water companies who's responsibility is transferred to individuals via metering. Households were only responsible 20% of the UK's 16.8 billion cubic meters of water usage in 1997/1998, far less than electricity and gas production at 33%. With gas and electric companies raising their prices to their highest levels for years this month, it looks like a squeeze on consumers from all sides as the companies responsible continue unabated.

It's also dubious whether metering actually works to conserve water stocks. Water companies argue it reduces consumption by at least 10%, but the independent watchdog Consumer Council for Water questions these figures, saying the evidence is "patchy" and savings are likely to be "only for a year or two". What's guaranteed is that metering will affect the worst off customers long after this drought has ended, by penalising them financially for access to the most basic of human needs.

The struggle against water charges in Ireland:

UK water privatisation - a briefing: