Water down the drain: prepare to meet thy meter

Leaks, running taps, drought... The time may come, says Sam Dunn, when we have to pay for what we use
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The Independent Online

Gas bill too high? Then switch supplier. Electricity costs soaring? Ditto. But water bill rising? Sorry, you're stuck with it.

There are few options for keeping a lid on the cost of this utility.

While competition between providers in the energy markets has favoured consumers willing to switch, there's no such benefit for water, where the regional companies in effect operate as a series of local monopolies - each dealing with their own natural water sources and soil types.

British households will shortly notice higher bills as, from 1 April, water companies have been allowed to raise their prices.

The average bill will increase by around 20 per cent over the next five years, to £295 by 2010.

This "price setting" by industry regulator Ofwat has been granted to help water companies invest in their infrastructure - in many places, an antiquated network of leaky pipes - and improve sewage treatment and disposal to address environmental concerns such as dirty water and wastage.

Some 3.6 billion litres leak from pipes across the country every day, according to Ofwat - the equivalent of more than 150 litres per property.

Consumers have also been coming in for blame. Water wastefulness is behind a stunt by Mark McGowan, a performance artist, who has left a tap running in a south London gallery as a way of highlighting the careless attitude of individuals towards conservation.

And all this comes at a time when wastage has been exacerbated by the recent dry weather.

In the south of England, November 2004 through to June 2005 has been the driest spell since 1975-76 - and water rationing has become a reality again. Southern Water and South East Water have issued hosepipe bans in the past three weeks, and Thames Water says an August ban is a possibility. London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, recently urged people not to flush after "taking a pee".

The Environment Agency has also reminded consumers to shower instead of taking a bath.

More urgently, Folkestone and Dover Water is about to apply for "water scarcity status". This would confer emergency powers allowing it to require every customer to have a water meter.

The move has raised the pressure for a national debate on compulsory water metering - a change that would at least bring water into line with at least one aspect of its gas and electricity counterparts: you pay for what you use.

For most people, water bills are based on the "rateable value" (RV) of their home - a method of calculating a property's worth that is still based on 1991 figures, although a review is under way.

In other words, the type and size of your home dictate what you're charged, not how much water you actually use.

So a family with four children using five times as much water as the elderly couple living in a similar home next door will pay the same - or even less.

This discrepancy lies behind the poor take-up, so far, of water meters.

Only 28 per cent of homes have a charging meter - a figure that has only crept up since 2000 when free installation by water companies was introduced, although newly built homes now feature them as standard.

"We're not yet ready for compulsory water metering. Without government subsidies, the cost of installation [borne by water companies] would [translate] into higher bills," says Andrew Marsh of Water Voice, the regulator's consumer arm.

However, statistics suggest that a having meter could be in the financial interests of some consumers. The average household could save £125 a year, according to research from uSwitch, whose website, www.uswitch.com, can calculate your own RV to see if a meter would benefit you.

The answer will depend on your circumstances. "As a rule, small households will save money with a meter; otherwise, it will probably cost you," adds Mr Marsh.

Gary and Amanda Bower recently moved their family to Spalding in Lincolnshire. Here, for the first time, their water is metered. With two young children - Chloe, eight, and Daniel, six - "there's so much washing, cleaning and bathing," says Amanda, who has already noticed their bill is higher.

"However, it should get cheaper as our kids grow up, and it does seem fairer that people who use more water should pay for it."

Although Elliot Morley, the Environment minister, has ruled out a general move towards compulsory metering, the Liberal Democrats are sympathetic to the idea; new party research estimates that homes can save £50 a year on average.

The National Consumer Council backs compulsory metering, but "only as a last resort, where there are severe shortages," says Janice Allen, its spokeswoman. Changes would first be needed to the financial help scheme for water bills, she adds; only 2.4 per cent of consumers eligible for assistance now use it.

Both the council and the Environment Agency urge all consumers to be careful with water and ration its use in gardens and for washing.

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