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Is metering the only answer?

SHOULD the nation switch over to water meters? The Government backs them, on the grounds that they are fair and provide an incentive to saving water. Trials carried out in the past five years in 50,000 houses on the Isle of Wight and elsewhere show reductions in water use of 10- 20 per cent after meters are installed, though much of this was from reduced leaks. People switch off hosepipes, and install low-flush toilet valves and shower-heads.

The water regulators, Ofwat and the National Rivers Authority, now require evidence that companies are plugging leaks and introducing meters before giving permission for new water-supply schemes, such as dams. But Frank Dobson, the opposition environment spokesman, says compulsory meters are unfair to people who need a lot of water, such as young families, and would cost pounds 4-5bn to install.

Though more than 2 million homes now have meters, water companies are getting cold feet because many customers do not like them. But they have other worries. Most of their costs in supplying water are tied up in laying water pipes and building treatment works, says Colin Green, environmental economist at Middlesex University. If everybody in a town installs meters and cuts their water use by 20 per cent, the cost of supplying that water goes down by only 2 per cent. So companies will raise charges to compensate. Add in the cost of the meter itself and, says Mr Green, "the consumer reduces consumption, but ends up with a higher bill".

One idea Colin Green backs is to insist on meters for people who have a licence to use hosepipes, suggesting that gardeners would be prepared to pay a very high price for a guaranteed supply.

But a more effective place for meters might be along the companies' water mains, where they would also detect leaks. If meters can persuade customers to use less water, the same should work for the private companies. And a few hundreds of millions of pounds spent on monitoring the water distribution system might yield savings greater than those promised from spending billions on digging up pavements to install domestic meters.