Leading Article: Labour's leaky answer to water

It is not so much a bandwagon as a water tanker, but the Labour Party has sure-footedly leapt aboard. More than half-a-million gallons a minute are leaking from the nation's mains supply, Labour proclaimed yesterday, while reminding us that the privatised water companies are asking us to cut down on the amount we use.

No one could argue that New Labour is not adroit in such matters. The attack chimes with genuine national preoccupations - these days we are hot, hot, hot - as well as a theme on which the Opposition has made the running, namely the vast perks of the fat cats of the privatised utilities. A third of all Yorkshire water is wasted; yet the company spent only pounds 11m on leaks and then declared profits of pounds 140m.

But is it all as simple as that? The problem, the water companies say, is that the pounds 4bn they have already spent in the past five years on improvements to the distribution system has only reduced leakage by 1 per cent. The cost-benefit ratio is low. In this the companies are right. It is not sensible to spend vast sums eliminating waste when there is plenty of water. But dealing with leaks is not the most important issue in the management of the nation's water resources.

It is instructive that today there are neither water tankers nor standpipes in the streets. In the summer of 1990, during the last comparable heatwave, 40 per cent of households were confronted with some restrictions; today that figure is just 2 per cent and those are chiefly hosepipe and sprinkler bans. Why? Partly it's because we have not had such an intense four months of drought in the build-up to the heat. But there is also some evidence that the water system is now more robust, with much improved resource management. This itself is a substantial achievement considering the legacy of under-investment with which the privatised companies began and the constraints of the various Euro-directives under which they labour.

Efficiency in managing water, however, is not the only consideration. The next step, in the long term, the Government insists, is water metering. This is Labour's real target. It claims, and privately the water companies agree, that such a move would not be cost-effective. There are, however, more fundamental reservations about metering.

Disturbing reports about the poor cutting back on flushing lavatories and running baths raise issues of public health, as well as those of the common good and the natural right people have to water. It may be that meters should be compulsory for those who want to use hosepipes, as is the case in East Anglia at present where water rates are high, reflecting the costs of rural distribution and removing farmland nitrates, herbicides and pesticides. But in the search for a balance between efficiency, the environment and preserving the poor's adequate access to water, meters- for-all seem an unconvincing solution. What that balance should be, however, Labour has displayed little sign of understanding.