An east London hairdresser claims her business is under threat because of a dramatic increase in her water bill since a meter was installed last year.

Jackie Jacobs, who lives above her hairdressing salon in Water Lane, Stratford, says her bill has increased 13-fold since Thames Water installed the meter in May last year.

'We are talking over pounds 2,000 a year,' she says. 'I just haven't got it. They will have to take me to court for it.'

Thames Water has been targeting London businesses using high amounts of water, such as hairdressing salons and photographic processing firms, as top priority for water meters. About half of the 250,000 business premises in London have made the switch.

Campaigners opposed to metering say Miss Jacobs's problem is not unusual and expect a steady flow of complaints unless the transition to metres is made easier to bear.

Miss Jacobs's water rates used to be pounds 154 a year. But in the last quarter alone the bill was pounds 295. For the previous quarter it was pounds 442.43.

'I expected it to go to just over pounds 200 a year, which I think is reasonable, but not pounds 500 a quarter,' says Miss Jacobs, who has been angry from the start about the way Thames Water have handled it all.

'They kept telling me I had to go on a meter.

'I gave them times when it was convenient, but they kept turning up when I had a shop full of customers.'

She is convinced the meters are inaccurate: 'I phoned the water company to say the meters were going round when there was no water running. Eventually some girl did phone back, but all she said was it was my responsibility if there was a leak.'

Miss Jacobs feels she cannot pass on the additional costs to her customers, most of whom are pensioners paying pounds 5.35 a week to have their hair set, or pounds 16 at most for a perm.

'I can't suddenly put pounds 2 or pounds 3 on. There would be an uproar.

'Even when I put 50p on a perm, most of them start complaining.'

If she did put the price up, customers would come only once a fortnight instead of once a week, she adds.

Neil Fishpool, chairman and national co-ordinator of the National Campaign for Water Justice, a pressure group set up to oppose metering, says Miss Jacobs is not alone in facing such unexpectedly high bills. 'Many small companies are saying it isn't worth having a business at all any longer.' He argues if meters have to be introduced, there should be a honeymoon period so companies can get used to the new rates.

According to Ofwat, the water authority watchdog, some water companies have done this, allowing businesses to continue to pay at the old rate while, at the same time, issuing them with a sample of their first metered bill. That gives companies a chance to budget accordingly.

But Thames Water has not done so. 'We do everything we can to give people notice. If they feel they may suffer hardship we will talk to them.'

It admits Miss Jacobs's bill was a big jump on the previous charge. 'But it's hard for us to tell whether it is too high or not. So much depends on the number of customers she has.'

Officials have offered to discuss the problem but feel it is unlikely the meter is faulty.

A cubic meter of water - the equivalent of 220 gallons or just under 13 baths - costs 47p.

(Photograph omitted)