Water metering: the trickle-down effect

With charges rising, Esther Shaw asks if more of us would benefit from a pay-as-you-use approach

Household budgets are set to be stretched even further when water bills go up at the beginning of April – prompting many more people to consider installing water meters to keep a lid on costs.

When you have a meter, you pay only for the water you use, rather than a fixed charge based on the rateable value of your home. At present, around a third of houses are metered, according to the Consumer Council for Water (CCW). Figures from price-comparison service uSwitch. com suggest households could save as much as £125 a year by installing one.

"Water meters may not result in cheaper bills for everyone, but there are many who would benefit," says uSwitch spokesman Geoff Slaughter. "Fitting a meter is free of charge, and if you find you are not saving money or are not happy with the change, you can switch back to unmeasured charging within 12 months."

According to uSwitch, if there are fewer people in your house than bedrooms, then you could save money with a meter.

However, Mr Slaughter warns that a meter may not be an economical way for larger families to pay for their consumption.

USwitch offers a "water calculator" on its website, while many of the water companies have their own "ready reckoners".

Tenants as well as homeowners can ask to have a meter fitted, according to industry regulator Ofwat, although they will need to get their landlord's consent if, for example, plumbing work is required.

Water firms can refuse to install a meter if it is impractical or unreasonably expensive to fit one. Blocks of flats and other properties in multiple occupation are likely to have a single meter, with bills averaged out among all the households in the building. But, cost permitting, meters may in some cases be fitted in individual flats.

As a general rule, households cannot be forced to have a water meter fitted, although there are certain exceptions, including homes in an area of "water stress" or "water scarcity", as classified by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

"The Government wants to move towards metering of all areas of 'water stress' by 2030," says Nick Ellins from the CCW. "Clearly this will hit the South-east because of the dry weather and the high level of population. Currently, only Folkestone and Dover in Kent have this status, but other water companies are applying for it."

Mr Ellins adds that about 80 per cent of households would save money by having a meter, especially as with fixed charges there are no reductions for people who live alone. He points out that there are other advantages too. "Once you've got one of these meters, it will encourage you to start looking at what steps you can take to reduce your consumption. The agenda here is environmental."

Mr Slaughter agrees that the move should promote more efficient use of water, but adds that it would be unfair for the water companies to make meters compulsory until they have tackled the backlog of repairs to leaking pipes, which are said to waste nearly 3.5 billion litres every day in the UK. Thames Water failed to meet its leakage targets for the third successive year last year, according to uSwitch.