Gummer: `Drought, what drought?'

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The Independent Online
John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday mounted a strong defence of a privatised water industry beleaguered by criticisms over water shortages, drought orders and hosepipe bans - and immediately came under fire himself.

As the National Consumer Council demanded that customers affected by the drought be compensated, industry chiefs and Mr Gummer argued that only 5 per cent of the population were by hosepipe bans - nearly 2.8 million people in south-east England, Cornwall and West Yorkshire.

But they omitted to point out that North West Water says it is "highly likely" to introduce a drought order early next week which will cover its entire catchment of 7 million people, more than trebling the percentage affected. North West is also applying for the legal powers needed to take extra water from at least one river, while Yorkshire also wants powers to take extra water from the River Wharfe and impose further constraints on water use.

Mr Gummer said the shortages were due to an exceptionally hot, dry summer. In 1976, the entire population was covered by hosepipe bans, and he said that if it had not been for privatisation in 1989 and the subsequent heavy investment in renewing mains and expanding water storage the current situation would have been worse.

But critics pointed out that Met Office figures showed last winter had been the fifth wettest in England and Wales since records began - a situation entirely different to that in the 1976 drought. Furthermore, the water shortages are the second to have occurred in five years. There were hosepipe bans on a similar scale between 1990 and 1992.

Mr Gummer said: "We have to accept that when the weather is occasionally like this we all ought to be more sensible with water. There's an alternative - paying much higher bills, but I really don't think people want to do that."

The industry planned to meet demand for a one-in-50-year drought, but if it invested to meet all contingencies, bills would be much higher.There had been complaints that about a quarter of all treated water was leaking out of the mains before it reached customers, but Mr Gummer said water companies were doing "much to control leakage". Labour's environment spokesman, Frank Dobson, said Mr Gummer's response shows "he's on the side of the water bosses".

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