Gummer demands study of water waste inyes

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The Independent Online

The Government yesterday asked the National Rivers Authority to conduct an urgent review of Britain's water supplies and the measures being taken to conserve supplies.

In the face the expected continuation of hot, dry weather, John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, demanded the appraisal should be on his desk within a week to see if new initiatives are necessary.

The move came as the privatised water companies, which lose nearly one third of their supplies through mains leakages, were accused of withholding pounds 400m in funds raised from customers to carry out repairs to the system.

Labour's environment spokesman, Frank Dobson, again took up cudgels with the10 major suppliers, claiming they had exaggerated the amount they said they were spending to improve the rickety infrastructure.

The water companies dismissed Mr Dobson's accusation, saying that if spending in one area, such as mains repairs, had been deferred, it would have been to enable them to carry out pressing projects in areas such as sewerage or drinking-water improvements.

The money raised through customer charges, sanctioned by Ofwat, the industry regulator, would be spent on mains repairs within a stipulated time period, they maintained.

Nicholas Hood, chair of the umbrella Water Services Association, said: "The debates about leakages and where the investment is going really only began during the drought. Those critics are Johnny-come-latelys. They are using the drought, probably the worst for several hundred years, to bash people ... because they have their own agenda."

The association holds the line that suppliers had no obligation to pay compensation for the hose-pipe and sprinkler bans being suffered by 18 million customers because the exceptionally dry summer exempted them from making pay-outs. Gordon Higgins, of the Met Office, said that after the next few days of unsettled weather, the hot conditions would probably return.

It was against this backdrop that Mr Gummer acted. "We have already had one of the hottest and driest summers on record," he said. "That inevitably puts pressure on our water resources. Given the latest forecast, we must review the position to see that appropriate action is being taken to safeguard water resources in the short and medium term.

"The NRA is the appropriate expert body. I shall study their report urgently and carefully to see if new initiatives are needed. We need to consider the position if a dry autumn or winter succeeds this dry summer."

In response, the NRA said that many rivers in England and Wales were flowing at less than half the average rate for the time of year.Clive Swinnerton, NRA director of water management, said because of the winter's heavy rainfall,groundwater resources appeared to be holding up well: "Despite some consumers facing supply restrictions, water resources are still in a healthier state than they were during the severe drought of 1976."