Hidden costs of water 'could scupper public support for meters'

PEOPLE would be less keen on water meters for measuring their bills if they knew the full cost and how much water was lost through leakage, the National Consumer Council said yesterday.

Surveys carried out for the consumer watchdog Ofwat - which supports the introduction of meters - have suggested widespread public support.

But the surveys were misleading, Robin Simpson, the council's deputy director, claims in the latest issue of Consumer Voice magazine.

'In none of the surveys were the respondents told that the average leakage is about 25 per cent of the water supplied by the water companies.'

Some 64 per cent of 290,000 respondents to a survey sent to 18 million households with their water bills said they would prefer metering.

Mr Simpson says: 'The questionnaire gave a range of increases in water charges due to metering, with an increase of pounds 29 a year at the top end. Yet there are well-documented cases where water charges have increased by more than that after meters were installed.

'The NCC believes that investing money in leakage controls would be far more beneficial to both consumers and to the environment than an expensive and potentially socially harmful programme of meter installation.'

By 2000, the rateable value system on which water bills are now based must be phased out and water companies face three options - meters, a flat licence fee and a bill based on property type.

An Ofwat spokeswoman said yesterday that metering was the fairest option and would reduce demand for water.

Customers would directly foot the water bill for leakages only if the leaks were in their own supply pipes.

And if a customers suddenly received a very heavy bill - indicating a leak - provided that he or she agreed to have the leak repaired within a reasonable time, the water company would charge only its usual bill, she said.

But Ann Taylor, the shadow environmental protection minister, shared the doubts of the National Consumer Council. She said: 'Customers who are not fully informed of all the facts may view a water meter as a way of cutting down on the huge water bills we have come to expect since privatisation.

'However, often the hidden cost of water metering means that the customer is no better off - sometimes they may even be a lot worse off.'

Ofwat has called for powers to compel water companies to compensate customers for poor service.

The watchdog will tell ministers that customers need greater protection from water companies, and urge them to give Ofwat legal powers to direct companies to pay compensation. Ofwat's regional customer service committees are concerned that water companies can ignore decisions from the director general that do not suit them.

They also believe the present compensation scheme fails to cover many complaints adequately, or at all.

Jim Gardner, Northumbria customer service committee chairman, said: 'We want customers to receive the quality of service and value for money that would be expected from companies operating in a competitive market.'